The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?
From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)
What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).
How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.
This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach? “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis. It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.
Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?
These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.
I would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:
“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”
“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”
“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”
The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.
During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.
However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.
Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.
Two moments of communal life have come to my attention recently that speak to the dangers of exclusion in the building of successful community that are worth discussing. Without disclosing the organizations themselves because these problems can occur nationwide and in any organization, it is important to examine the situations and what they teach us about working to build inclusive community representation because ultimately only when everyone is at the table can true civil discourse happen and true decisions on behalf of the community at large really take place.
The first incident involves an umbrella organization that is comprised of representation from diverse segments of the broader community. This umbrella organization meets periodically to discuss issues relevant to the community at large and to take stands on legislative and communal points of interest. This organization was presented with an application for membership from an entity whose ideology does not resonate with every member at the table. They are undoubtedly an organization that fits criteria for membership in this umbrella group according to the bylaws but because enough voting members find discomfort with some of the stances this organization takes, their application was rejected.
The second incident involves a new entity that also wishes to be an umbrella organization. This entity wishes to exert influence and leadership over important resources within the community and to be a critical player in shaping the religio-cultural discourse within the community at large. The first major act of this nascent organization was an act of exclusion by denying membership to entities that, by all reasonable measures, would and should be members of this new umbrella organization but deviate too far from the personal mold of religious character of the majority of the membership. In other words, the common uniting characteristics between those “in” and those “out” are enormous but they diverge on some specific sub-denominational identity markers that make the majority who is “in” feel uncomfortable to the extent that those on the “out” were rejected even before a formal application process transpired.
The intention for the actions of exclusion by both groups is the same. They believe that by casting to the margins those they do not personally agree with on every issue they will help build a community of more consensus and a community more in line with their vision of what it should look like. The reality is that this is far from what happens. In fact, the opposite is true. By creating a climate of “in” and “out” in communal umbrella organizations you are not at all shaping a single community or building consensus but rather contributing towards the very breakdown of community. The consensus is false and instead of one unified community, multiple oppositional communities take shape and begin to emerge. The fault lines begin to become developed to the point wherein people separate from other people, organizations from other organizations and finally the divisiveness becomes so destructive nothing positive can be done.
While, on the other hand, if each of these organizations had accepted as members those entities that fit the criteria for membership but who contain some specific stances that make members in the umbrella organization feel uncomfortable then a true moderating balance would have developed. It is in the absence of those who think differently or who can challenge basic assumptions that extremist positions develop. The power of an umbrella organization that contains disparate views is that moderation occurs in a bi-directional fashion. Furthermore, if part of the mission of an umbrella organization is to exert influence over policy and legislative decisions that impact community that very mission becomes severely compromised when a portion of the community, which by organizational bylaws should be at the table but is not.
The aim of communal exclusion is usually done in order to try and shape an ideal version of community according to whatever vision those enabling the exclusion seek. Yet, community is comprised of those who are in the community, including those with whom one does not agree on every iota, and writing them out of organizational boardrooms does not make them disappear.
A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine gleefully forwarded a link to a study that asserted that atheists and agnostics are more motivated by empathy to help others than the religious are. Although this isn’t precisely news (similar reports were made nearly a year before based on three other studies), I wondered why my friend (and others who passed this around) were so pleased by the findings.
I suspect it is in part because our culture valorizes emotion, and in part because this cultural elevating of emotion leads people like my friend to think that less empathy is somehow not as good, that religion, if it is to do any good, must encourage people to be more empathetic.
But I disagree. I cannot speak for other faiths of course, but the sages of Judaism knew their business when they maintained that “a person who is commanded and does receives a greater reward than one who is not commanded and does” (B. Talmud, Bava Kama 87a).
We live in a society that considers personal choice to be the highest value. However, while choice can lead us to making good decisions, and is necessary for us to make moral choices in our interactions with others, more empathy isn’t necessarily better, and indeed it may well be that in terms of moral decision-making, especially moral decision making that involves long-term planning (such as environmental choices that involve personal discomfort over long periods) or large numbers of people – especially people we’ve never met, rule-bound and rational decision-making will lead us to far better decisions.
This week’s New Yorker has a wonderful article that reminds us that empathy works best when we are in one-to-one situations – humans tend to be motivated to feel for babies who fall down wells, children shot in schoolhouses or three women with compelling stories who survived years of torture by a sociopath. Yet our reactions, though well-meaning- to such tragedies may not be useful. We want to do something, and so we send food,clothing, toys – and the towns which don’t need these things are overwhelmed. We organize to send thousands of t-shirts to Africans – thus making a situation worse rather than better by undermining local textile economies with cheap junk, or pass laws that do the opposite of what we would wish to see. The New Yorker article offers these examples:
In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.
Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help. Meanwhile—just to begin a very long list—almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections
One of the reasons I find this tension compelling is that as a Conservative, female, rabbi, I spend a lot of my time negotiating the tension between halacha, Jewish law, and the need for Jewish societal change.
Halacha by its nature requires us to follow rules, but to be who I am, it’s also necessary to find empathy for people who traditionally have been excluded by tradition, to interpret laws in ways that makes the people more equal but also to interpret law without destroying it. Those laws are the framework by which we measure moral judgements, they should be the framework through which we, as Jews, see the world. Empathy, while important, is not, cannot, and should not be, the only driving force behind a moral decision. I am thankful that the rabbis also valued svara- logical reasoning- as a means of interpretation. But even reason alone is not pure – all of us are living like fish in the water, unable to see the rules and assumptions that go to making up our world, and making decisions based upon those assumptions without even recognizing them as social constructs. Reason thinks it is unaffected by these structures, but the reality is that reason itself is affected by emotion.
There is ultimately no escaping our frameworks – the best we can do is to try to balance them. And what that means is that being human, and being a good Jew, will always mean vastly divergent views on what God demands of us, and how we are to fulfill those demands. But while we are not require to finish the task, neither will we ever be free from struggling with it. And juggling all the parts of our human selves that make it difficult – and make it worthwhile.
A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
“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.
“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. 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.”
“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.
I am a self-confessed football fanatic. From September through January, my Sundays are centered around the performance of the San Diego Chargers (my star-crossed hometown team). The feeling of elation after a victory casts a positive glow throughout much of the following week, while a loss leaves me virtually inconsolable for the rest of the evening. My considerate spouse tends to discourage other non-fanatics from coming over to the house to watch games with me: I have been known to yell somewhat loudly, and I take literally the word “throw” in “throw pillows.”
To others who share this unhealthy obsession with football, the period between the Superbowl in February and the beginning of the season in late summer can feel like an eternity. But there is a spring oasis, a football three-day holiday, that emerges each spring called the NFL Draft. For seven rounds, football teams select college football players to add to their professional ranks for the coming year. Ostensibly, the purpose of the draft is to restock depleted rosters with relatively affordable players. But for football fans, the draft takes on a far more important role: it gives us hope: hope that these 20-22 year-old amateurs will take their physical gifts and become franchise players; hope that your team’s first-round pick this year will become an all-star rather than an expensive bust; hope, in short, of the power of potential to become reality.
Judaism, too, offers a spring-time multi-day exploration of the power of potential. From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, we count off a 49-day period called Sefirat ha-Omer (“Counting of the Omer”). According to Leviticus 23:15-16, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer (“sheaf”) of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” Despite its agricultural-sacrificial original context, the Counting of the Omer has become a period for spiritual rejuvenation. At a national level, the Omer bridges the gap between Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and Shavuot’s formation of Jewish communal identity with the receipt of the Torah. At a personal level, based in part on Kabbalistic (mystical) teachings, the Omer becomes an opportunity for individual spiritual purification from a slavish mentality (to money and materialism, work, preconceived notions, etc.) to one that is open and receptive to the instruction of the Almighty.
The Counting of the Omer has become more popular within Jewish circles, I believe, precisely because it taps into the Western cultural desire we all have—NFL fans and those indifferent to the gridiron—to celebrate potential. Despite the toxic nature of our political discourse, the relentless economic malaise we have experienced since 2008, and the tragic violence that continues to penetrate into our daily lives, we still yearn for hope. We still want to be inspired. So when our political and economic leaders fail us, we find other avenues for satisfying our innate need to find and experience potential. We are riveted by the latest hi-tech gadgets, from iPhones to Google Glass (often waiting in line for hours and paying ridiculous amounts of money) because of what they might enable us to do. We watch The Voice or The Bachelor because we want to be part of the process of “discovering” potential greatness. We live in a culture that venerates youth not only because we are shallow and vain but also because youth epitomizes limitless opportunity. For better or for worse, we are a “stem cell” culture: just as embryonic stem cells have the potential to transform into any other cells in the body as they mature, so too do we seek to recapture that fleeting time and sensation when we had not yet become what we are.
The Omer represents an authentically Jewish way to tap into this innate human need to celebrate potential without the cultural detritus of superficiality. Mindfully using the Sefirat ha-Omer enables us to take part in the excitement, the freshness, and the opportunity to re-claim the potential we still have to reinvent ourselves spiritually, both individually and communally. So I encourage you to take advantage of the time remaining in the Omer this year (we are at 34 days and counting). Visit The Huffington Post’s Omer Liveblog for some incredible visual and poet insights; begin reading or studying some text you have always wanted to but never found the time for; attend a yoga or meditation class for the first time; or just carve out a few minutes each evening to think about how you would like to improve your religious life for the upcoming year. Few of us are blessed with the physical tools to become professional football players, but each of us are blessed with the capacity for spiritual, intellectual, and moral growth. May the Omer remind us that we don’t need to wait to be drafted by others to take hold of our own potential for greatness.
I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in 1968 at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:
Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the Yeshivot and Rashei Yeshivah; mahshavah [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology; and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives… What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged… No committed and ambitious young man should ever aspire to become a functionary in an arid community; certainly not to become a parish butterfly.
The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion and committee, sub-committee and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fundraising woes and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.
A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission driven synagogues nor mission driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.
What a mission driven synagogue is I will leave to another blog post in the future but for now I would like to focus in on a mission driven rabbi. A rabbi who lives and breathes his mission is a rabbi who does not see his or her job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting but sees his or her work as bringing forth a vision of Judaism in the place in which he/she works and in the lives of the people he/she leads. A mission driven rabbi can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times and sometimes frustrating to the people he/she leads because that rabbi will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.
Mission driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda.” The word itself means nothing more than having a list of things to get done but has taken on a negative connotation. It has come to mean the rabbi wishes to hoist a particular platform unto their community. This is absolutely not what being mission driven is all about. To be mission driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.
A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution and to want to simply be in the room.
Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring that: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves–before it is too late.” May this truly be so.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat found meaning in the Boston bombing when she wrote a blog post celebrating the helpers – people who rush in to support the injured and confused.
Here in Vancouver, Canada, I am more concerned with local events. Particularly those on Sophia Street.
Despite all our security systems and protective protocols, Koi the cat attacked Buddy the bird.
Technically, Koi tried to play with Buddy. Perhaps you can’t blame him. Each species has its own inherited rituals and routines. Buddy plays by taking short flights, daring you to follow him, and laughing as you chase him. Koi plays by leaping and batting with his unsheathed claws at things that fly.
From Buddy’s perspective, Koi’s game sure looked like an attack. So that’s how I responded.
Leaping forward, I slipped on a rug, fell up two stairs, and landed splayed out in an awkward position.
Buddy and Koi, startled, looked at me and separated. Buddy retreated to his cage, and sat inside sulking. An embarrassed Koi ran for the back door. Within twenty minutes, Koi was back home. Within two hours, Buddy was eating and chirping merrily.
Meanwhile, I gained three bruises, a bloody scrape, and a pulled muscle. Left more off-balance than I realized, the next day I fell doing yoga and got an additional scrape. And fell again reaching for a book and got an additional bruise.
Celebrate the helpers. Sigh.
Perhaps all the security systems and protocols in the world cannot fully protect us. Perhaps we will always be vulnerable to a freak attack. Let’s keep in mind the fragility of life and hold it precious.
Perhaps what can seem like a daring game to one person is actually a deadly strike at others. We should heed this principle even in our own less violent spheres of action. Sometimes a sarcastic verbal strike or a poorly thought out prank can be deeply hurtful.
Perhaps helpers take more of a battering than we realize. We take them for granted, when we should attend to their healing as well.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. From this real-life animal parable, I can draw metaphorical threads to many spiritual lessons.
And that in itself is a fascinating spiritual lesson.
Because if I’m a spiritual seeker, the entire universe becomes my spiritual teacher. My cat, my bird, my fall, my bruise: each one “points beyond itself,” as philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel says, towards a deeper reality. Each one catches my attention. Each invites me to ask who I am and what I am doing with my “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver says.
Sometimes religious people compartmentalize the world into two separate spheres: holy and ordinary, or sacred and profane. For them, the narrow holy sphere can only be entered by following specific steps in thought or behaviour. Yet even they admit that the holy can burst through in ordinary life. In times of crisis, they pray, hold vigils, and offer spiritual comfort. Sometimes they say that God has appeared in a terrifying, unfathomable way, beyond anything their theology can explain.
It certainly seems so to me at times! And if I can admit that God sometimes shows up outside the bounds of official religious practice, surely I can admit that God often shows up out of bounds. In my cat. In my bird. In my bruises and scrapes. And in my unending search for meaning.
Sometimes spiritual seekers reject formal religion. To them, religion may seem dry, remote, outdated or even silly.
True confession: it certainly seems so to me at times! But because I know I can find meaning in a bird and a cat, I try harder in the formal religious sphere. I let rituals, prayers and dogmas point beyond themselves. And I find the most meaningful spiritual lessons when I step just a bit out of bounds.
Image: Koi and Buddy in a calmer moment. Photo by LDK. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.