Category Archives: Spirituality

Does Judaism Ultimately Matter?

world trade center croppedLast week, I had a mystical experience.

As I took my seat on an airplane flying from Toronto to Vancouver, the man next to me put on large headphones. He then actively avoided noticing me for four and a half hours.

His behavior bothered me.

He had his reasons for wanting to be alone and they had nothing to do with me. Still, what he did sparked something for me.

Despite the walls he put up, we were not actually separate. His actions, and the thoughts and feelings behind them, affected me.

And I saw:

His psyche is inside him, and also outside of him.

Consciousness is both inside and outside each of us.

To imagine my consciousness centred in my body, as I usually do, is an illusion.

The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind.

What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies.

Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die.

My old view of an “I” centred within me and generated by my brain is a false product of unclear thinking.

Just as gossip makes it hard to see people truly, so the conventions of language and dogmas of science make it hard to see myself truly. 

To see clearly, I have to lift veils of opinion over and over again.

I sat in my seat, typed a report on my laptop, entertained someone’s bored baby, walked through the airport, and endured the chaotic crush at baggage claim. I just did it all with a beatific smile on my face. Many people smiled back, delighted to be lifted for a moment out of their traveler’s stress.

The words I choose to describe this experience are not unique. I seem to have learned them from great teachers before me.

In his book Republic (c. 380 BCE), Plato tells the allegory of the cave. We live as if we are prisoners in a darkened cave, seeing shadows cast on a wall, and imagining them to be real objects. If a person were to break free, exit the cave, behold the real world in sunlight, and return with a magnificent report, the prisoners would still prefer to live in their shadowy reality. The cave is everyday human thought; the prisoners are you and me.

The Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, in his Kabbalistic work Tanya (1797),  describes God’s light emanating through successive screens. Some screens, such as the human experience of identification with a body, cannot be removed. But we can increase our awareness of the screens, and thus of the Divine light showing through them.

Some religious traditions label mystical experience subversive.

This week, I understand why. In this type of experience, gossip appears as a veil. Models of the self appear as a veil. Religious theories about the nature of God and the soul appear as a veil, too. At best, they seem to be partial metaphors; at worst, they seem to be mistakes and lies.

Not just everyone else’s religious theories; the ones I was raised with, too.

No, I won’t be abandoning Judaism. My parents raised me with religious and cultural Judaism as a natural habitat and I did the same with my children. For me, connection with ancestors and a chain of tradition 3,000 years old is another kind of mystical experience. It’s an experience rooted in body, culture, and personal identity — quite different from last week’s transcendent experience.

From a personal and cultural perspective, Judaism is “mine.” At the same time, from a spiritual perspective, I am part of something much larger than “me” or “mine.”

So when I encounter choices, like Susan Katz Miller’s decision to raise dual-faith children described in the New York Times article “Being Partly Jewish,” I understand. I understand both the negative and positive responses to her decision.

I understand, profoundly, the fear of Jewish civilization disappearing. If that happened, a lot of what I am, too, would disappear. It might even seem as though I had lived in vain.

And I also understand, profoundly, that Judaism is only a civilization. Its religion is only a set of symbols pointing beyond themselves. By enjoying two faith traditions, one might compromise everything on the cultural level. But, at the spiritual level, one might well compromise nothing at all.

The prophet Zechariah speculated that Judaism might ultimately transcend itself. “On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).

Maybe it will. I don’t ultimately know.

And that’s okay, because ultimately, there may be no “I.”

And, ultimately, true spiritual knowledge may not belong to the “I” at all.

**

Image: One World Trade Center, a structure mirroring the sky, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2013.

Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on November 7, 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

A New Spiritual Comfort Zone: Reflecting on the Pew Study

diversityAs Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz says, statistics in the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs are wide open to interpretation. And different interpretations will lead to different responses.

94% of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Some interpreters will say that programs building Jewish identity have been successful; it is time to improve other facets of Jewish life. Others will insist we keep doing what works.

44% of married U.S. Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Some interpreters will suggest we try to reverse the trend, and focus on teaching a more exclusive sense of Jewish identity. Others will celebrate America’s multiculturalism and urge us to work in creative ways with diverse and unique families.

Really, the statistics are a kind of Rorshach test. Our responses to the statistics may tell us as much as the statistics themselves do.

Personally, I am fascinated by statistics about theism and religion. I came to these numbers with the belief that Jewish leaders need to develop more sophisticated approaches to spirituality. And I come away from them thinking that now is the time to act.

According to the Pew study, 72% of Jews say they believe in God.

What do the remaining 28% not believe in?

In a thoughtful, upbeat reflection on the study, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes:

Countless people tell me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” Does that mean that they can’t relate to the old-man-in-the-sky image of God, especially after the Holocaust? No big surprise there. Most Jews can’t, myself included.

People tell me this, too; so many times it has become a platitude. Is this image really a deal-breaker in Jewish theism? I don’t think so. I do think that the phrase “I don’t believe in an old man in the sky” is a short, ready-to-hand, socially appropriate way to skirt a conversation about God, spirituality, or faith.

Unfortunately, we rabbis and teachers often accept these words at face value. We easily assume that many adult Jews have not moved beyond the first adolescent questions they asked about religion. So we tell them that mature Jews don’t believe in the “old man.” With kindness and warmth, we invite them to try adult Judaism as we know it.

Sometimes I think this is a self-protective move, because we are unprepared or afraid to step outside the Jewish discourse we know. Sometimes I think it is a patronizing approach, as well. Surely the life experience of these thoughtful adults has pushed them to existential reflection. Surely their challenges and yearnings have pointed them in many directions, not just towards questions about Divine authority.

Perhaps they do not feel held by a great heart of compassion, as Catholics might say.

Perhaps they do not believe that synchronicities in their life are glimpses into a prepared destiny, as depth psychologists might say.

Perhaps they have lost hope that humanity may be evolving towards greater justice and peace, as Quakers might say.

These are all components of faith, all aspects of what people imagine an effective God might provide, and all ideas that have (and have had) a place in Jewish discourse. If we see ourselves as spiritual teachers, it is our job to meet seekers where they are, not just to invite them to join us where we are. But to do so, we need a broader understanding of what faith means, and a web of threads connecting kinds of spirituality with concepts of God.

To gain this understanding, we may have to step temporarily out of our own comfort zone in Jewish religious vocabulary. Different religious and philosophical traditions emphasize different aspects of a soul’s life journey. Exploring those aspects may help us understand the hearts of the seekers who turn to us. Learning new concepts may broaden our ability to welcome diverse Jews into spiritual life.

We may find, in fact, that the question “Do you believe in God or not?” is an inadequate tool to gauge spirituality or even religious belief. Perhaps a broad spectrum of existential reaching, questioning and growing connects all 100% of Jews. And we, the so-called spiritual teachers, need to catch up with this reality.

We should not be afraid that this exploration will lead us –- or those we teach and counsel — away from Judaism. In fact, the Pew study suggests, now is a perfect moment to risk learning something new. For Jewish Americans, both multicultural comfort and Jewish pride are at an all-time high. Flexible spiritual guidance from open-minded, broadly-educated rabbis can only increase that pride.

Image: www.reflectingrunes.com. Cross-posted at www.OnSophiaStreet.com

Posted on October 6, 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

So Now What?

As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.

So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?

nasa-shutdownWell, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”

Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.

There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.

Posted on October 1, 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

Baruch Dayan Emet

aravotHoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot.  It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout  the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.

There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes]  from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”

What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.

The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova “A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).

Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.

And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.

Posted on September 25, 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

Seekers and Unaffiliated: An Opportunity

I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being  professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.

And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.

labshul 5774 torah service YK

That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.

Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.

We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.

I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation.  Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.

The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their  support.  It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.

(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)

Posted on September 22, 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

Shall We Pray? Spontaneously?

Occasionally, a book about Jewish prayer will tell you that Judaism discourages spontaneous prayer. That magic of Jewish prayer, the book will say, lies in mastering the discipline of repeating a fixed liturgy. Only through repetition can we gradually open ourselves to the spiritual mentoring of our ancestral authors.

This, gentle readers, is complete nonsense.

Judaism encourages spontaneous prayer and liturgical prayer.

The dual focus is amply described in the Talmud and in Hasidic literature. Our siddur, the anthology of 3,000 years of spiritual poetry that serves as our liturgical text, was never meant to abolish spontaneous prayer.

For a Shabbat prayer leader, it’s not easy to deliver spontaneous prayer week after week. Rabbinic schools do not offer a core course in the skill. Here’s my confession, though: offering spontaneous prayer is my favorite part of the entire service.

Over the last three years, as I have gained confidence, I have spoken aloud, mostly in English, some 150 different prayers for peace and 150 different prayers for healing.

These prayers are not prepared in advance. They emerge from the raw materials of congregational life and the content of that week’s service or Torah reading. They are not preserved afterwards. As I return to ordinary consciousness, the details fade.

If I could, I would collect the healing prayers into a book called “Fifty-Four Meditations: Healing Prayers for Each Torah Portion.” But I can’t. The prayers do not form themselves when I sit in the presence of a text – only when I stand in the presence of people.

Maybe there’s a bit of mystery to this practice.

More likely, it depends on a unique intersection of skills.

Some of the skills are taught in rabbinic school: Formulating ideas into words, quickly. Reading Biblical Hebrew with understanding. Giving multiple translations of Hebrew word roots, so that the words become metaphors and stimulate new interpretations.

And some of the skills are not taught in rabbinic school: Quieting one’s own mind to receive feelings from those around you. Opening to the presence of God within a group. Learning to put spiritual perception into words. Most of this I learned studying Spiritual Direction in a Christian seminary. (A handful of Jewish spiritual direction programs, such as ALEPH Hashpa’ah, and Lev Shomea, also teach it).

Why are these skills not often taught? Perhaps it’s connected to Rebecca Sirbu’s observation that Jewish communities often do not talk about God. We lack vocabulary for discussing the experience.

More precisely, our God-vocabulary is very strong in some areas and weak in others.

Kabbalistic teachers speak of four worlds of reality and consciousness: assiyah, the world of action; yetzirah, the world of emotion; beriyah, the world of intellect; and atzilut, the world of spirit.

Contemporary Judaism is rich in discourse about God in the world of action. We speak of ethical mitzvot, ritual mitzvot, and tikkun olam, repair of the world. We easily understand ourselves to be fulfilling a divine ethical imperative through our deeds. We also navigate well in the world of intellect. Many of us can explain with skill why we are theists, atheists, or agnostics.

But we do less well in the areas of emotion or spirit. It’s easier, for example, for us to argue that God doesn’t exist than to explore a feeling of being abandoned by Divine love or protection. And many of us theists have no vocabulary at all for the experience of dwelling in God’s Presence.

Most of us can pray spontaneously, but few of us know how to talk about it, teach about it, or do it authentically while serving as a prayer leader. We may enjoy stories about the great Hasidic masters who do it well, but rarely think about the skill set that would make it accessible to us.

Is spontaneous, heartfelt, accessible prayer something you would like to explore? How can you start the discussion in your circles?

Image: onmounthoreb.com. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

For more on prayer and spontaneity, click here.

Posted on September 22, 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

Joy as an Answer to Death

tree-sky“How do I go on?”  I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?

Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.

In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.

On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”

Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.

I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.

Posted on September 18, 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

Taking It To The Streets

Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?

Synagogue_insideRecently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.

Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!

A_Pleasant_Sukka

I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).

Posted on September 17, 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

In praise of the boring

keas1_page_013I admit that I’ve never been particularly hip.

Even as a teenager, at best I was probably pretty geeky, and what’s more, not appreciably bothered by it. I liked the Beatles, had hair down to my tush, wore nothing but jeans and t-shirts other than when I was hanging around at the Renaissance festival, and spent most of my free time reading. Even my mother, decidedly not a fashionista, would wonder aloud about which era I had been born into—apparently the one before hers.

When my son was a toddler, I read to him all the time. I often read classics—but a lot of the gender and race descriptions in some of those could be a bit squicky, so I would change them on the fly. This proved to be more difficult than one might think: toddlers—at least mine—have excellent memories, and like to be read the same stories over and over, which meant I also had to remember exactly *how* I read the story the last time. Because it had to be exactly the same.

These days, being unhip in the Jewish professional world is a terrible disadvantage. Grants go to the young and groovy -which I never was, even as a teenager—programs have to be innovative, and tefilah prayer services have to leave one panting with joy and overflowing with meaning.

I admit, I like a good indie minyan myself. And I have nothing against meaning, or innovation. But I do begin to wonder whether we really need those things—at least as much as we seem to think we do. Or even if we are sure about what they are and where they come from.

Our community has gone from one where elders are revered to one where they are ignored; where meaning seems to be derived from “finding something new to do,” and where innovation replaces commitment. It’s not that I don’t like new tunes, and I always find something new when I study a text (which I admit I prefer to davenning), but it seems to me that we have become hampered by our search for something to stimulate us. We want happiness, but what we seem to reach for instead is distraction.

I wonder what would happen if, instead of looking for new things, the Jewish community started cherishing some of our old things – starting with our elderly. I’d love to see a liberal shul teach their community to rise before their rav (or rabbah) and their aged (just FYI, I don’t work in a synagogue, so this isn’t some personal grandiosity).

What if, instead of “programs,” the shul simply instituted regular study at different intervals (for people who had different schedule-juggling needs) – no more movie-night slichot, but instead an evening of study followed by simple tefilah, maybe with explanations for those who are beginners? What if we asked our communities to make a commitment to some kind of regular out-of-shul meet-ups with other congregants, and to commit to attending weekday services a certain number of times a year? It would probably be different for different communities, but what I’m aiming at is less innovation, less programming, and stripping things down not to basics, but to core.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the warmest, most active shuls I’ve been involved
with are ones that aren’t so interested in inviting the hippest groovy innovator—they’re the ones that keep on rolling in their homely little buildings with active lay people who simply do human things week after week – phone calls and davenning, and bikkur cholim,and dinner together on Shabbat. Ones where there is a commitment to consistency.

It isn’t only toddlers who need repetition to learn and to feel comfortable, and it isn’t only geeky teens who are uninterested in doing something new, just because. I wonder how much of the “search for innovation” is counterproductive, and I wonder if we spent less time on flashy gewgaws, would we actually attract more people—people looking for an alternative to, or at least a supplement to, the highly innovative, always stimulating, constant change of the secular world.

Posted on September 11, 2013

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Do We Go to High Holiday Services for the Comfort of the Boredom?

At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”

Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”

The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.

But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.

The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays.  The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.

Shanah Tovah.

Posted on September 3, 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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