Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why a Rabbi? Five Aspirations for Rabbinic Life

By | Tagged ,

On January 11, 2015, I received rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Six years of academic study, spiritual formation, pulpit experience and chaplaincy service culminated in a moment of transformation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Assuming the traditional posture, I leaned back into my teachers’ hands as they intoned ritual words that changed me forever into a rabbi. In that magic moment, I became the most recent link in a chain connecting teacher to student, generation to generation, century to century, and epoch to epoch – harnessing history while reaching toward a future we yet can scarcely imagine.

Now that I’m officially a rabbi, both legally and spiritually empowered in my religious acts, now is an ideal moment to ask perhaps impertinent if not subversive questions: Why? Why be a rabbi? Why do Jews need rabbis? Better yet: do Jews need rabbis? If Jews do need rabbis, what kind of rabbis do Jews need?

1621777_10204853806837835_4449214329409592776_nUnder halacha (Jewish law), most routine Jewish matters don’t “require” rabbis. A shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) can be a layperson and still fulfill all practical, emotional and spiritual prerequisites of an effective prayer service. Young adults become bnai mitzvah automatically at the appointed age, or by rituals of Torah and prayer – neither of which requires a rabbi. A m’sader kidushin (wedding officiant) need not be a rabbi (but in most jurisdictions, civil law reserves to clergy or specified public officers all power to solemnize marriages). In these and other seemingly ubiquitous rabbinic contexts, Jewish law does not require a rabbi.

And yet, each year ALEPH and other seminaries together ordain several hundred rabbis, belying alarmist predictions after the 2013 Pew Study that synagogue life is retrenching. Maybe a more apt conclusion is that Jewish life is evolving – shifting beyond synagogues and youth programs to include community centers, schools, retreat centers, health care settings and social action contexts. As a result, rabbis are finding their way to serving in all of these environments. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies recently observed about this trend, modernity still “values Jewish learning, and recognizes that the difference between a moribund and a dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm.”

Sure. But what makes a rabbi moribund or dynamic?

A rabbi is Chief Spiritual Officer, but isn’t necessarily the most visible leader. Rather, an effective rabbi attunes hearts, minds and souls in whatever context the rabbi serves, then uses tools of Jewish culture and spirituality to nourish, inspire and deploy them for collective good. Sometimes a specific setting relies on a rabbi’s title, what Jack Bloom famously calls a “symbolic exemplar” of sacred authority. To Bloom, the rabbi as “symbolic exemplar” evokes transformation because the rabbi’s words effect change by their mere utterance. (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”) The ideal rabbinic role, however, is neither symbolic nor titular: rather, the rabbi is a dynamic capacitor modulating the flow of individual and collective spirituality.

Understanding the rabbi as energetic capacitor shifts our question about what Jews need in rabbis. A new kind of answer emerges: Jews most need rabbis to the extent that rabbis fulfill their energetic functions. Critically, a rabbi’s title, learning and visible leadership do not alone discharge these energetic functions. After all, instinctively we know if a rabbi is dynamic or moribund, charged up or low on juice, well wired internally or short-circuiting. We know if a rabbi touches us, changes us or bores us. We know when a rabbi is inwardly real.

It follows that we must ask an even more potent and refined question: what makes for a dynamic, charged up and well-wired rabbi? In my 10 days as an ordained rabbi, I won’t pretend to corner the market on answers to this question. But as I embark on my own rabbinic journey, I offer five aspirations for my own rabbinate, reflecting the ways I believe that rabbis can best serve the deepest needs of 21st century life:

  1. Rabbis must model our own authentic inner lives. A rabbi who isn’t going anywhere can’t take anyone along. A rabbi stuck inside can’t move anyone. Rabbis must be seekers in our own right, boldly undertaking our own authentic spiritual journeys. In turn, rabbis must cultivate contexts in which it is safe for us to express, in appropriate settings, natural human emotions commensurate with our inner lives. Only as we ourselves recognize and spiritualize our own occasional fear, hurt, grief, doubt, anger and other foibles can we liberate others with permission to do the same.
  1. Rabbis must be in regular peer supervision, spiritual direction or counseling. As rabbis can wield substantial influence and bear considerable emotional and psycho-spiritual stress, rabbis must have contexts in which to refine ourselves accordingly. Clergy can become inured to or blinded by our roles – unwittingly hiding behind title, influence, power, privilege, control and social deference. The result can be blind spots, inward self-defense and spiritual bypass. Every life faces these dynamics – rabbis aren’t exempt – but rabbis especially must model ways ways to address these dynamics for two reasons. First, what we ourselves cannot do, we cannot help or encourage others to do. Second, precisely because of our roles, we are perhaps even more likely to need assistance seeing ourselves clearly. As Talmud notes (B.T. Berachot 5b), “A prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.” For that reason, for everyone but especially for rabbis, there is no need – and no wisdom in the attempt – to go it alone. Consistent peer review, spiritual direction or counseling can give clergy the reflective space and tools to keep ourselves as fitting vessels for others’ emotional and spiritual unfolding. As a corollary, it follows that rabbis mustn’t be stigmatized for seeking these confidential, supportive and therapeutic professional relationships. In many instances, these aren’t grounds for concern but rather, signs of wisdom and strength that rabbinic employers and Jewish communities should encourage.
  1. Rabbis must consistently feed the flames of our own learning. A stale rabbi is a stuck rabbi. Rabbis must continuously learn something new and challenge our own skills and assumptions. Ideally rabbis should combine individual study with structured chevruta learning. It’s a shame that, to date, no seminary or movement has adopted the ongoing learning standards of the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. They should.
  1. Rabbis must cultivate spiritual leadership beyond ourselves. Says Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.” The rabbinic role is not to monopolize spiritual or pastoral authority, but to cultivate it wisely in others. The rabbinic role is a mentoring role – to lift others up, encourage them, teach them, and then engage in personal tzimtzum (self-contraction) by gracefully making space for others to evolve into leadership appropriate to their own aspirations, gifts and skills.
  1. Rabbis must remember what business we’re in. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (of blessed memory) used to say, “It’s okay for a synagogue to be a business – but be sure you know what business you’re in.” The modern rabbinate has become a profession, but like other ethical endeavors, first and foremost the rabbinate is and always must remain a calling. After all, history’s rabbis viewed their rabbinic functions as acts of service, finding earthly remuneration in secular pursuits. Hillel first was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Rav Huna was a cattle farmer, Ravs Chisda and Pappa were brewers, Maimonides was a physician, and Rashi was a vintner. Perhaps times have changed: remuneration, getting and keeping a rabbinic job, and climbing whatever ladder of influence and achievement may call to a rabbi, all can have their proper places. Remaining unchanged, however, is the ethical calling of the rabbinate – the core of the rabbinic heart and soul – that beckons the heart and soul.  This is the rabbinic “business” that always must come first, at any expense.

Among my teachers’ most enduring words in ordaining me were these: “Herewith we ordain you … to clarify and pronounce truths in way that make a tikkun (repair) for the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God). We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries, just as those who appointed us delegated us and sent us to be rabbis.” In essence, my teachers proclaimed that tikkun is the existential reason for a rabbinate. In the words of Isaiah 58:12, a rabbi must be a “repairer of the breach, restorer of paths to dwell in,” and conduit for spiritual flow in whatever context we serve.

That’s a path worthy of a rabbinic calling and life of service. That’s the rabbinate that Jews most need today.

Posted on January 22, 2015

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

From State of the Union to Congregational Life, Meaning and Mission Come First

shutterstock_210439654“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come.” So said President Obama in his State of the Union speech last night as he began to speak less of specific legislation and more of the values that he believed should shape how we, as a country, approach the choices we make and the kind of society we want to live in.

Earlier in the day I had participated in a multi-faith community prayer service at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA. The semester begins with a coming together that expresses a spiritual foundation upon which everything else is built at the college. Near the start of the ceremony they invited all present to stand to represent their faith tradition. Those who identified as Humanists, Atheists, and those who identified as “Agnostics, Seekers, and Questioners” were among the many groups called to stand. In other words, the whole college community was included. And without preaching, a presentation of the beauty and message of a variety of faith-based paths set the tone for the start of the semester.

However, even more than the ritual itself, I was struck and impressed by a conversation I had with a student after the service; a young woman who identified as Jewish, who came from a mixed-faith family background. I was particularly struck when she shared with me that studying in a college where faith community and spiritually-infused values are the foundation for everything that they do is so inspiring because there is a greater sense of purpose and meaning that feels so evident in the college community. Even though the college is overwhelmingly Catholic in its student make-up, the message has not been to be Catholic. Rather, she has been inspired to think more deeply about how her own sense of faith is defined and how it inspires a sense of purpose in her own life. And she is learning about the importance of being part of a larger community, working together, to live out that sense of purpose.

Hearing the President speak last night, and listening to this young woman earlier in the same day, I was reminded of what we know to be true but so often, caught up in the details of daily life, we forget. Whether as a country, a town, or a congregation, we easily lose our way and are more inclined to make poor, short-sighted choices, when we narrowly focus on immediate gains and don’t do more to convey the “why” of our institutions. We all want and need to be part of something greater than ourselves that is purpose driven.

President Obama asks, “who do we want to be?” In the remainder of his speech, he made it abundantly clear that this was not a solo question. He talked about economic justice, gender equality, LGBTQ equality, environmental concerns, international relations, the right to vote, and more. What we are creating together is incomplete when we leave some of us out.

For all of us who are part of communities, and for those of us leading congregations, this is the question that needs to lie at the heart of our mission statements and the focus of our being together. “Who do we want to be?” We may have different answers to that question but if asked with a broad and inclusive sense of “we,” the conversations that we have and the sense of purpose that we create will be ones that unify rather than divide us.  Whatever else we may be doing in and with our congregations and communities, always returning to this question will anchor us and, as the President articulated last night, “… will make us stronger.”

Posted on January 21, 2015

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

“The State of the Union is …”

imgresEvery January I reflect on the lessons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel famously said of King that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Together this pastoral duo was a strong moral compass for the nation, that inspired its citizens. Each man could articulate a vision of a better tomorrow, and more than that, they both believed that each of us could take steps to bring dreams to fruition. “By each deed we carry out,” Rabbi Heschel said, “we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. Our role in history is tremendous.”

January also brings with it the President’s State of the Union Address (this year it’s tonight, January 20th). It makes for depressing political theater, predictable applause lines and partisan standing up or sitting down. Representative Joe Wilson made some small waves a few years ago when he yelled, “You lie.” Alas, such is the state of politics lately. What do I want to hear in the State of Union this year?

Dr. King said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This year President Obama has been traveling campaign-style prior to delivering his State of the Union Address, an historical first for a president. We already know, based on what he tells us he’ll be speaking of, that we can hear more about his tax plan for the 1%, tax breaks for the middle class, and increased cybersecurity. Both of these points are politically expedient – its what most of us want to hear, but are these the points that will us to become ‘a more perfect union’? Heschel said that the task of a statesman, “is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interest.” In contrast to other predictable topics, President Obama has also announced a visionary and ambitious plan to make community college free. To my mind, a bold plan such as free community college does in fact begins to approach “statesman” status.

What do you want the President to turn our attention to? It is worth thinking about. Here is some of my wish-list. If I could, I would implore the president to please use his address to bring our country into honest discussion about:
1) Race relations. Dr. King led a great battle for civil rights, but enough time has passed to measure his success, and sadly, in large measure, blacks and whites in our great country still misunderstand and mistrust each other.

2) Food. Every citizen deserves safe, inexpensive, healthy food. All too often inexpensive, accessible food is also unhealthy food. Factory farming, unethical treatment of animals, and illogical farm subsidies for certain crops also needs changing.

3) Economy. There is tremendous income inequality in the world. By one report, in 2016 the top 1% will control 50% of the world’s wealth. This wild imbalance is a threat to the democratic process, and is a recipe for the exploitation of resources and workers in the name of profits.

4) Human Rights. Our world is still dealing with modern, actual slavery. Human sex trafficking is a significant issue, and so are the sub-human conditions in the mining of rare earth elements for our cell-phone and other gadgets. What do we stand for as a leading nation on this planet if we care more about the low price of smartphones rather than the people, often children, who are forced to mine the minerals necessary for their production? We are all complicit in this atrocity. Will call attention to what should be an unacceptable situation?

5) Gun Control.  The Constitution gives us the right to defend ourselves, but that does not preclude us from creating some common sense guidelines to protect our citizenry.  Every day there is a new senseless tragic story.  Yesterday’s heartbreak came when a nine-month-old baby was shot to death by his five-year-old broth in Missouri.

6) Environment. 2014 was the driest year in recorded history, and marine biologists are asking people to track tidal king waves in preparation for a ‘new normal’. Our oceans are facing catastrophic die-off. President Obama has recently staked out methane as a new emission to regulate, but there is so much more we need to do to protect our environment. Are we willing to invest time and money into a safer healthier planet for our children? Is fracking safe?

In 1967 Dr. King said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Beyond Vietnam.

In a 1963 telegram to to President Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

The hour once again calls for ‘high moral grandeur’. Let this new year surprise us with an end of governmental stagnation and political point-scoring on both sides. The president has the opportunity to set the agenda of the big conversations we need to have. Frankly, with the House and Senate both in the hands of the same party, Congress has a real opportunity to lead as well.

And we too have a role in demanding and creating a better tomorrow. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Dr. King put it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It begins by articulating your dream for this great country.

Posted on January 20, 2015

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

We Must Still Dream!

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We 

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of  former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!” 

These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963.

Last month I walked the streets of New York City with thousands of others to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I cannot believe that over fifty years since Dr. King uttered these words, African American men and women still need to fear being stopped by the police, still suffer unfair treatment at the hands of police and other authority figures, and are still judged by the color of their skin.

Racism is deeply entrenched in our society. As a white person, I could easily ignore this fact. However, I am also a woman and a Jew. These two identities compel me to take note of injustice and to speak up.

As a woman, I know how it feels to be judged by my body and not my mind. I know how it feels to hear words spoken to me, words whose surface meaning hold no malice, but are said with a sneer or inflection that clearly communicates a sinister intent. I know how men can communicate their thoughts about you by a look or a gesture. I know how small these incidents make me feel. I can infer from these experiences how African American men and women could feel in similar situations when race is the issue instead of or in addition to gender.

As Jew, while I now hold a place of privilege in American society, I know that this has not always been the case. I read in the Bible about how we were slaves in Egypt. I study the crusades, the pogroms, and the Holocaust. I hear last week’s news of Jews being killed as they shop in a kosher grocery store in Paris. I may be in a privileged position as a white, American, Jew living in New York. But I feel in my bones the precariousness of that privilege.

Shedding blood diminishes the divine image

Shedding blood diminishes the divine image.

So, I cannot stay silent. Like Dr. King, I too have a dream. I too dream that all people, regardless ofskin color, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or place of birth should be accorded the same rights as human beings. We are all human. We all feel pain. We all bleed. We all die. Why, oh why, must people make life even harder by hating each other instead of helping each other? This is something I will never understand. As a rabbi, I feel compelled to speak out. I believe that God created each of us in God’s image. We are all equal, and we must treat each other with the care and concern we all deserve.

In remembrance of Dr. King, on this MLK Day, I pledge to keep dreaming. I pledge to keep fighting for all people to be treated with dignity, respect, and accorded equal rights. This dream must become a reality.

“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted on January 19, 2015

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

White Moses and Black Bond

The recent Sony hacking scandal raised an uproar about the movie The Interview with Seth Rogen and James Franco. But it also caused an uproar about James Bond.

Emails leaked as part of that hack reveal that the co-chair of Sony Pictures believes that Idris Elba should be the next actor to play British agent James Bond, a role currently occupied by Daniel Craig.

shutterstock_170446715The character of James Bond, the suave spy originally created in a series of novels by Ian Fleming, has been a fixture of the movies since Sean Connery originated the role in Dr. No in 1962. Elba, who is known for his work on The Wire, is black. Every previous actor who played the role is white.

This raised some hackles, especially as voiced by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. In reacting to this, Limbaugh insisted that Elba could not play Bond because Bond, as written, is white. Limbaugh’s comments received their own reaction.

This is not the only issue of race and casting to make news recently. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a retelling of the biblical narrative of Moses, received criticism for its casting choices, since white actors portray the main roles of Moses and Pharaoh (and others).

Interestingly it seems that the same people who would criticize Limbaugh and affirm Elba as James Bond would be the same to object to Moses being played by Christian Bale—that it would be OK for a black man to portray a traditionally white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character who historically would not have been white. But perhaps there is not much difference.

People who lived in the ancient Near East may not have looked like Christian Bale. Yet, the book of Exodus, which we began in our weekly Torah reading last week, is not a history book about the ancient Near East. When we read the biblical text we do not read it looking for details about the past, but rather for our present. We read the stories for the lessons that underlie them; the characters portrayed in the stories are not meant to be actual people, but archetypes that transcend time and place.

shutterstock_110819906And although James Bond is a contemporary character, and although Ian Fleming did write the Bond character with a particular racial profile in mind, that character has also become an archetype.

Therefore, when it comes to the movies, there is no one way to portray these archetypal characters: Moses and Bond could be portrayed by either white or black actors.

We have recently once again confronted issues of race in this country, following several instances of black men being killed by white police officers. And these conversations about Moses and Bond, about race and the movies, are part of this larger issue. Our views about race and the movies are not about the characters themselves, but about ourselves. So let’s continue to have these conversations.

Posted on January 14, 2015

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

Dying to Talk

The spectacle of death

The spectacle of death

On a single day last week, we were stunned by news of the Charlie Helbo attack in Paris and a bomb going off at an NAACP office in Colorado. At the same time, this day was no different than any other: our media regularly saturates us with stories of death and violence. In her prophetic book All About Love, bell hooks describes this phenomena as a symptom of America’s death-obsessed culture. She says, “It may very well be that…the constant spectacles of dying we watch on television screens daily, is one way our culture tries to still that fear [of death], to conquer it, to make us comfortable.” Our culture’s efforts to comfort us and conquer our dread depict deaths that are sudden, faceless, and violent. This ultimately deepens our anxiety about death.

The day before, in my role as rabbi of the VNA-Hospice of Philadelphia, I gave a blessing to the social workers, nurses, administrators, and chaplains with whom I work. Words of blessing came easily as I beheld a roomful of people engaged in holy work. The hospice staff regularly facilitates family conversations about what is important to loved ones at the end of their lives, and does its best to care for the dying according to their desires. My coworkers and I often need to initiate these conversations because, as hooks writes, “The more we watch spectacles of meaningless death, of random violence and cruelty, the more afraid we become [of death] in our daily lives.”

We feed our anxiety when we only hear about death “out there” and deny it is also part of our story, and can even be a meaningful and peaceful part of our story. A 2013 survey says that 90 percent of Americans believe it is important to discuss the way we want to live at the end of our lives while we are able, but less than 30 percent of us actually have had this conversation: Parents don’t want their adult children to worry about them; children don’t want to think their parents will ever die. Locked into a mutual conspiracy of denial, families wish they had spoken only when it is too late. A recent Institute of Medicine report notes that most people nearing the end of life are not “physically, mentally, or cognitively able to make their own decisions about care.” According to many doctors, how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is too afraid to have.

shutterstock_165815267

Conversing about our wishes for end of life care does not have to be difficult

Fortunately, recent initiatives like The Conversation Project are shifting all of this. In collaboration with “Death Over Dinner”, adults of all ages have begun, over the last few years, to discuss their wishes for end of life care at a structured dinner party using guiding questions like, “How long do you want to receive medical care?”, “How involved do you want your loved ones to be?” and “What role do you want them to play?” Having these conversations over dinner, or tea – as long as we have them – improves our chances of receiving the type of care that we want, and helps decrease family discord should our families be called upon to make these difficult decisions for us. Perhaps, when we make the choice to confront our cultural anxiety and acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we can give ourselves to love and to life more fully.

Posted on January 12, 2015

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

The Yearning Burning Bush

shutterstock_175506029There are 54 discreet portions, parshiyot in the Torah.  If we regard them as chapters in a greater whole each portion begins a new episode in the ongoing story of our heritage – with one exception.  This week’s portion (Va’era) is a continuation the endpoint of last week’s portion (Shemot).  This week’s portion takes up in the middle of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush.

From Charlteton Heston to Steven Spielberg we have witnessed the majesty and mystical experience we associate with God’s direct revelation to Moses.  Unfortunately the Hollywood images blind us to what may be the real messages in the text.  The Burning Bush presents the paradigm for all future interactions and attitudes toward God and challenges humanity to rise up to the potential with which we were created.  It is not so much about experiencing God in life as it is experiencing God in our lives.

A simple reading of the text shows that Moses is not reluctant to accept God’s charge to free the Israelites from Egypt – he refuses four times.  In his refusals he challenges God to become more transparent in dealing with humanity.  Moses first asks, “who am I to do this?” but soon, aggressively continues, “Who are you?” to God.

Despite God’s assurances to the contrary Moses continues “They won’t believe me.” Finally he says to God, “Please send someone else.”  God’s anger hides the fact that Moses actually wins this part of the argument because God sends Aaron to help him.

This foundational text sets the future dynamic between Israel and God: We may follow God’s will and word but not ever blindly.  Questioning God is in our spiritual DNA.

The Rabbis view at this episode with a mixture of emotions.  At one point the ask a pointed question (which is hinted at in Spielberg’s version), “How long was the Burning Bush burning?”  Their answer?  400 years with Moses being the first person to come close to this known supernatural phenomenon.  According to the interpretation the bush started burning the second Israel was enslaved in Egypt.  This prompts the question, “What would have happened if someone else had turned aside to look at the bush several hundred years before Moses?”  Their answer?  We would have been freed several hundred years earlier.  It took someone to recognize the significance of the bush and turn aside to look for God to take the first step towards freedom.

And these are only two facets of the text:  A text that establishes our relationship with God and asserts the potential to greatness in each of us.

Posted on January 11, 2015

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

“Booyah”….This Too, Is Holy

shutterstock_148771532This too is holy. The baseball stadium, that is. I know it is not only potentially cliché, but also possibly idolatrous to speak with such spiritual exaggeration. It is true that our society tends towards the fanatical when it comes to our affection for sports. Too many live and die with the touchdown, the missed goal, the great catch or the blown call.

But if spirituality is about the whole transcending the parts; or about disparate, random entities being mystically sewn together into one communal thread; or meaning being deepened by a shared, intimate experience, then the arena of sports can indeed be holy too.

My love for the NY Mets is intertwined with my late mother’s affinity for the Dodgers of Brooklyn. My depth of affection for a perennial loser is unwavering because I inherited the connection from my giver of life. This too, is holy.

From my first summer as a rabbi until two years ago, I spent an annual hot and blessed August afternoon with my spiritual brother and mentor, Rabbi Alan Kay at Shea Stadium and Citi Field. We were there to watch baseball, but intertwined with the webbing of the innings were deep and philosophical conversations about the sermons we were in the midst of preparing for the oncoming Holy Day Season. Between cheers, jeers and peanuts, we mined souls and ancient scripture to answer our calling and those of our respective communities. Our annual spiritual study in Queens was snuffed out too early because Alan succumbed to the scourge of cancer. I miss him and look for him. I see and hear him as the boys of summer play their game. This too, is holy.

And, when my son and I laugh and cry and scream at the arena and at the stadium, we connect and draw closer. It is the sport, but more, it is an entrée for new layers of relationship. Indeed, we create memories which punctuate his childhood and connect the dots of my otherwise frenetic adult existence. This too, is holy.

So, when Stuart Scott, the famous ESPN sports broadcaster, succumbed this week, like my dearest friend and rabbi, Alan did, from the scourge of cancer, at the unbearably young age of forty-nine, I cried. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t close to him or his story. But I cried. I cried because he used his sacred sports platform to teach us about courage; about honor; about humility; about grit; about determination; about family; about acceptance; about the precious nature of the living in this sacred universe, even when we feel robbed of a life that should have been longer.

And then I realized that it wasn’t just me. Stuart Scott’s death reached across the spectrum. The President spoke out in grief. So did Lebron James. And Kobe Bryant. And Michael Jordan. His life touched those whose lives are larger than life. The hardened became soft and vulnerable.

And he was “just” a broadcaster. All of us are “just” what we do each day. But, more, he was a human being. He told the truth. He lived the truth. He fought the truth. He did it through sports, but in his case, sport was sacred. Not because sport by itself is ultimately vital to our quality as human beings. But the manner in which we live in any aspect of our lives is what counts the most. He did it the right way. He embraced every day. He touched so many.

Mr. Scott’s favorite expression which has become part of our colloquial lexicon was “Booyah”. He would yell “Booyah” to joyfully and exuberantly broadcast a superlative homerun, touchdown, defensive stop or goal. But I realize now that he is gone, that he wasn’t merely describing the play; he was embracing the sacred nature of life.

This too, is holy. We should embrace the sacred wherever we come across it.

Booyah, Stuart Scott. Rest in Peace.

Posted on January 7, 2015

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

Choose Your Word Wisely

Have you already chosen your word for 2015? The word that will focus your attention on what you want to do and who you want to be this year?

It’s not too late to choose.  New Year’s Eve—the traditional time for making resolutions—was less than one week ago, and many promises made that night have probably been broken by now.

I chose my word yesterday, after realizing that it had been on my mind all weekend. I guess I needed a little time to overthink the matter.

It probably won’t surprise you that I came across the idea of choosing one word for the year on Facebook. Every Friday morning I spend some time scrolling through the week’s posts of The Originals, a writers group I joined for participants in Jeff Goins’ My500Words writing challenge. On Friday, January 2nd I read Laura Hile’s blog post about her word for 2015 and followed a link to the My One Word website, where I was captivated by the idea of changing my life through focusing on one word.

Rereading the end of that last sentence, I can actually hear how corny it sounds.

Please allow me to explain and, perhaps, to persuade you. I love a challenge.

In fact, challenge is the word that kept occurring to me as I contemplated my choice. A few weeks ago, my daughter invited me to join her in the 2015 Reading Challenge and I readily agreed. Last week I finished the Thursday New York Times crossword in record time and decided to try the Friday puzzle for a new challenge.

Here’s my word:

etgar

Etgar is Hebrew for challenge (noun), a modern word derived from an ancient three-letter root, g.r.h, meaning to challenge, provoke or stimulate. I chose a Hebrew word not because I’m a native Hebrew speaker, rather because the process of researching its etymology led me to consult half a dozen books, including an Aramaic dictionary not opened since 2013. Like I said earlier, I love a challenge, particularly one which stimulates the intellect.

Etgar represents what I want to do and who I want to be this year. I’m ready to face whatever challenges are ahead in 2015.

What word do you choose?

Posted on January 6, 2015

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

Fix Society. Now. Please!

It’s been just over a week since Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. Leelah grew up not far from where I live in Cincinnati. If you haven’t heard Leelah’s story, it’s a tragic one. Leelah was a trans teen who chose to kill herself because, as she wrote in her suicide note, “the life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.”

Leelah’s note was posted on tumblr shortly after she purposefully walked in front of a truck on a dark night, but tumblr has since removed the blog post. In that post, Leelah described feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body ever since she was four years old.

Leelah Alcorn

Photo of Leelah

Leelah’s parents were not supportive of her gender identity, to say the least. For several months, they completely isolated Leelah by removing her from public school, taking away her computer and phone, and not letting her use social media. Leelah’s parents also took her to Christian therapists who she said told her she was selfish and wrong.

So, Leelah felt her best option was suicide. For Leelah, I am so sad. For every person who struggles for acceptance of their sexuality and/or gender identity, I am sad. For every person who feels life is not worth living, I am so sad and distraught.

That Leelah’s parents used religion (Christianity) to reject their child’s gender identity makes me angry. Clearly, there are many Christians who would accept Leelah for who she was. Certainly, there are some Jews who would argue acceptance of Leelah, and other Jews who would argue rejection.

My Judaism and my humanism bring me to a very simple conclusion: Leelah was a person. She was Leelah. And, my humanness moves me to compassion, to understanding, and to acceptance of others and their feelings.

I do not believe that religion should be used to marginalize and stigmatize. I want to be part of a religious community that is open to possibilities – and that empowers every person to be himself or herself.

Leelah ended her suicide note by asking us to fix society. Our actions cannot bring Leelah back, but hopefully they can make a difference in the lives of others.

Here are just a few small steps you can take to support others:

• Read PFLAG’s Guide to Being a Trans Ally
• If you’re involved in Jewish organizational life, talk to the leadership about how your organization can be most inclusive
• If you have children or work with children, open the door to important and honest conversations about sexuality and gender
• Know the signs of suicide and be ready when you see the sings to open up important conversations and make connections between people and resources available

In the words of Leelah Alcorn, “Fix society. Please.” Challenge accepted.

Posted on January 5, 2015

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