At the end of the week, I embark on a weeklong meditation retreat. As the retreat starts, and for its duration, I will not be permitted to check e-mail or use my phone. Though I’ve gone on over a dozen silent meditation retreats, the prospect of a week away from these distractions still frightens me. I will miss seeing what news stories my friends are interested in and sharing on Facebook, and being able to text friends and family to say “hi,” or wish them a Shabbat Shalom. On the other hand, I worry sometimes that all this focus on building up my virtual self—“Liking” and “Sharing” the right things, posting enticing photos on Facebook, and trying to respond to all of my e-mails—prevents me from experiencing the world around me.
With Passover less than a month away, I am thinking about our relationships with the non-stop input of e-mail and social media (made more omnipresent by our smartphones) as a kind of slavery of habit: according to the Wall Street Journal, Americans between the ages of 18-24 check their smart phones 53 times a day. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) was proposed as an official psychiatric disorder, researchers citing American and European studies showing that up to 8 percent of people have neurologic, psychological, and social dysfunction relating to their overuse of technology. Although about a billion people use Facebook, and about half log in daily, research is only now emerging about the effects of our constant use of Facebook on our well-being.
On the holiday of Passover we celebrate our freedom from slavery with matzah, a special flat bread. We often think of matzah and chametz (the leavened bread we are prohibited from eating during Passover) as opposites. It might surprise us to realize matzah is almost the same as the chametz: chametz is spelled ח,מ,צ, chet, mem, tzaddik. Matzah, the simple bread we eat on Passover, is spelled מ,צ,ה, mem, tzaddik, hei. The only difference between chametz and matzah is the tiny gap in the hei of matzah, versus the closed top of the letter chet. A Hasidic tradition teaches that this narrow opening in the hei is the place we let God in. The closed gap in chet represents being closed off to our Source, and by extension to the vitality and wonder of the world around us.
Every year, on Passover, I take a break from Facebook. The chametz of Facebook causes us to close ourselves to feelings of vulnerability or spiritual discomfort. This may not be such a bad thing every once in a while. Unfortunately, we are not discriminate: our smartphones are often still in our hands during a moment of joy, or of a natural welling up of compassion for the people around us. Through overuse, rather than helping us connect with a sense of wondrous connection with our vitality and its Source, these distractions become chametz. Habit. Slavery.
Why then is it a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to go back to eating chametz at the end of Passover?
Taking a break from chametz forces us to do something out of the ordinary as we clean our houses, and eat special foods. By doing this, we can better see the habits we are enslaved to, and can return with more mindfulness to our daily actions. Similarly, the silence of my upcoming retreat is a stark contrast from the normal noise of my daily life. I know, even in the midst of this noise, that I will soon be plunged into silence. That—at least theoretically—this silence is available at any moment. I know I will return to the buzz of my hyperconnected life after retreat, the chet of my existence that too often closes me off to the world around me. All it takes is a narrow space in the hei to reconnect with our Source. With this tiny “gap” in the flood of input, I will restore a sense of genuine “connection” to my state of technological “connectivity”—and remember that all this sound is surrounded by a vast silence.
Meeting Ranya Kelly for the first time you would never guess that this quiet petite woman once brought a major corporation to its knees in the city of Denver. She never intended to be a controversial celebrity but, when you get to know her you will find that Ranya never backs away from a fight when she is in the right.
Several years ago she found herself in need of a good sized box to send out a gift. She went in back of a strip mall store that sold shoes to find such a box but, when she opened the dumpster, found 500 pair of brand new shoes instead. The store, and its parent company, had a policy to discard merchandise that did not sell after a certain amount of time.
Ranya took the shoes home and invited her family and friends to take what they wanted. But she still had hundreds of pairs of shoes left – and would not throw them out. She ended up driving to a homeless shelter to donate the shoes. There, she had an epiphany. As she put it, “I never knew about the shelters or the people who really needed anything. I grew up in an upper middle class family. I was never involved with poor people. There was a pregnant woman standing in the doorway, her pants dragging on the floor. She had a two or three year old in tow and had not shoes. It was the middle of January. I just couldn’t comprehend that somebody didn’t have a pair of shoes when I had just found 500 pair.”
Ranya went back to that dumpster and began collecting discarded shoes. She was caught, almost arrested for theft and almost sued. When they could not stop her the store began shredding the shoes to stop her.
Finally, after the press got involved and both sides began talking Ranya was allowed to continue. Today, over one million shoes later, she has created an organization that brings stores which habitually discard unsold merchandise together with people who are in need. Ranya’s organization, the Redistribution Center, channels millions of dollar’s worth of materials every year.
I have known Ranya for more than twenty years and have facilitated redistribution programs in New Jersey, Mississippi and Kentucky. Opening the trucks and watching our “clients” see what is inside brings tears to our volunteer eyes. I remember one director of a program in Newark, New Jersey blessing us all – reminding us again and again how much life we were spreading around.
And sometimes I cry as well. In part I cry because I don’t realize how much a brand new pair of jeans means to a Mississippi teen who has to wear torn sweatpants because even now, years after Hurricane Katrina, the family can’t afford clothing. I cry because a Kentucky schoolchild will have a new backpack instead of a plastic garbage bag for her school supplies.
And I cry because as sensitized as I have become to the needs around us, I still live in an upper class community known for its wealth and high educational standards. I remember quite clearly when I approached a local minister to co-sponsor Ranya where we would be able to bring thousands of dollars of new clothing and household goods for those in need. He said, “There are no poor people in our town.”
For those of you who live in north/central Jersey: Ranya will be here in May – come and find out about a truly saintly woman, and help fix the world.
Do you want to be happy?
Then here’s my advice: don’t try to be happy.
That idea comes from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He tells us that significant research suggests that many of the ways we try to get happy (“Set a goal! Think positive thoughts! Imagine the life you want!”) are actually counter-productive.
Instead, he argues, we should realize that we may not achieve our goals, that negative thoughts and feelings are part of life, and that scary things happen.
…t]he notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. Or, to quote [philosopher Alan] Watts, “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float,” and that “insecurity is the result of trying to be secure…” (8)
He calls this method “the backwards law,” and it’s a perfect message for Purim. which is the day when “everything gets turned upside down.”
On one hand, Purim is clearly a fun holiday. We wear masks and costumes. We hold parties. We have carnivals and celebrations. We let our hair out.
One the other hand, the Purim story itself is filled with tremendous anxiety and uncertainty. Will Esther be brave enough to speak to King Ahashuerus, even though it might mean she’d be killed? What would have happened if Mordechai hadn’t overheard the plot to kill the king, or if his courtiers hadn’t realized that Mordechai needed to be rewarded? Most of all, will the Jews survive Haman’s murderous plot?
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the word “Purim” comes from the word “pur,” meaning “lot” — as in “lottery.” Purim, at its core, reminds us that life is uncertain, scary and often gets turned upside-down.
Yet it’s that very lack of security that can lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. As Burkeman explains,
…[t]o seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life,” [Alan] Watts writes, “I am wanting to be separate from life.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity…
“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing,” concludes Watts. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest, in which everyone is taut as a drum as as purple as a beet.” Even if we temporarily and partially achieve the feeling of security, he adds, it doesn’t feel good…”We discover [not only] that there is no safery, [and] that seeking it is painful, [but] that when we imagine we have found it, we don’t like it.” (146-147)
Ultimately, Purim reminds us that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and in fact, trying to desperately hold onto safety makes us deeply unhappy, since we are not truly living life to its fullest. Instead, if we can embrace the fact that life can be scary and unpredictable, we can then be totally present in moments of joy.
In other words, to truly be happy, we need to turn our ideas of happiness upside-down.
John Lennon once wrote in lyrical desperation, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Without any conscious intention, I woke on this morning before Purim, with Lennon’s aching voice circling my spirit. I smiled a teary grin, as I sang to myself, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Lennon’s song bemoaned that it felt impossible for him to discern the authentic truth through the rhetoric of political chatter and its associated punditry.
And that is all I want. Just give me the truth. The air waves are full of so much noise. The more black and white our politicians try to paint it, the more grey it all feels to me.
I love Israel. I stand for Israel. Please excuse the drama when I say that I would die for Israel. I believe that Jews only live with a measure of comfort in the Diaspora because of the fact that Israel exists. And Israel cannot merely exist. Israel must thrive and be strong.
And, I love the United States of America. Despite our profound societal problems, I feel privileged to live here. I don’t take the breadth of my rights for granted. Even though I want so much more to be better here, I believe that we are the shining city on the hill.
What’s the truth for me? The truth is that I was angry at Prime Minister Netanyahu for coming to speak in the greatest auditorium in the world without an invitation from the US President. I believe he acted disrespectfully to the Office of the President. I believe that it is bad form to use the US Congress as a political tool and campaign stop just two weeks before an Israeli election. I believe that the politics of this all might have, in fact, obscured the grave and serious facts about the real issue at hand: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And finally, I think the speech created a potential for greater partisan fissure, when for most of our recent history, the support of Israel has been an agreed upon partisan issue. That is why congress shows up in such great numbers to the AIPAC Policy Conference annually. I am moved by their attendance every year, both Democrats and Republicans.
What is the truth for me? Once the Prime Minister was intent on speaking, I lobbied in every way possible for every member of congress to show up. Israel is too important for anyone to misinterpret a boycott of a political situation for a boycott of Israel herself. Too many of my own congregants were pointing to anti-Semitism when I believe the truth was more about politics than it was about being against Jews and our Homeland.
What is the truth? The truth is that Prime Minister Netanyahu brought me to tears. I love Israel and believe that Iran has evil intentions. I believe Iran when its leaders say they want to wipe Israel and Jews off the map. I believe in “Never Again” because too many of my own family members were wiped out by the Nazis. I believe that we can’t be innocent or foolish in our assessments of Iran and its ruthless leaders. I fear for Jewish safety.
What is the truth? The truth is that I was moved to tears because of my love for Israel and I also felt, at the same time, the nagging feeling of being manipulated by political theater. I wish that the leaders of the lands I love the most would spend their time not giving speeches, but instead strategizing in Situation Rooms, every scenario possible towards mitigating the Iran problem. Iran’s intentions were made loud and clear yesterday. But very few options were given. War might be the only option, but the drumbeat towards conflict should be accompanied with every other alternative possible. Our lives are worth too much now….as much before a conflict as they would be after such an event.
What is the truth? The truth is that we are frightened and we have to be very careful not to be paralyzed by our fear. It is up to our political leaders to just give us the truth. Not their nuanced versions of narrative to help build either of their political resumes. But a line of reasoning which binds us together as Jews and Americans towards a course of survival and flourishing. I have come to the point where I vote Jewish first. I just pray that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu care as much about our survival as they do about their ownership of power and political legacies. And perhaps they should spend more time hearing and learning from one another and less time making political theater…..all of which makes the truth so much tougher to discern.
Tonight we are told to don masks and disguises to celebrate Purim. We add layers of truth and dare by virtue of our celebration. When the raucous Purim parties end we will arrive home sweaty with joy. The first thing we will want to do is rip off our costumes. We will want to stop pretending. We will want to be us again. We will look in the mirror and see the truth of who we are without façade.
When the holiday of masks and disguises is over, once again, we will sing, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.”
If I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still picture the expression on her face. My breath catches in my throat. I remember the tiny sob that escaped as I tried to say, “Amen.”
Two weeks ago, I experienced a spiritually charged moment in synagogue. In my experience, that’s pretty rare. Like many people I know, I enjoy the social aspect of attending synagogue and endure the lengthy services and sermons. I feel closer to God in silent mediation.
However, on the morning of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah, every word of the morning prayers seemed to be infused with divine energy. Dalia has autism and is non-verbal; she cannot communicate with words what this moment meant to her. Still, her excitement was palpable throughout the service. It was unlike any Bat Mitzvah and just like every Bat Mitzvah I’ve attended, only more so: more joy, more crying, more coming together as one community.
Dalia’s mother, Rebecca, and I forged a friendship when she approached me more than a year ago. She thought my input both as a mother and rabbi would help her as she designed a ceremony that would accommodate her daughter’s special needs. I’ll never forget our first lunch meeting; Rebecca brought a legal pad filled with notes and questions that she had essentially already answered. I reassured her that she knew, better than anyone, what Dalia could learn and achieve.
Two weeks ago, after countless hours of preparation and endless attention to detail, including several rehearsals, Dalia showed just what she was capable of doing. Using her communication device that was programmed with visual supports/prayers from Gateways’ resources and wired to the synagogue’s sound system, Dalia sang the blessings before and after she signed the Shema as her Torah reading: “Praised are you, God, Giver of the Torah.” The congregation of more than 150 honored guests answered, “Amen.”
As a mother, I know what this rite of passage meant to Rebecca. We both want our children to feel they have a place in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. As a teacher, I share Rebecca’s belief that “kids with autism are so capable, it just takes time and patience to help them succeed in their own way.” Each of us strives to fulfill the biblical instruction, “Teach a child according to her path; she will not swerve from it even in old age.” (Proverbs 22:6)
One reason Rebecca encouraged media coverage of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah is she hopes that parents of children with autism who Google “autism” and “bat mitzvah” will see Dalia, will see what can be possible for their children to accomplish.
I also have hopes. I hope to see Dalia, and other kids with autism, in our synagogues all the time. I hope to see articles about their b’nai mitzvah in my Facebook newsfeed all year, not only during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. I hope to experience more joy, and more crying, as each child finds his or her path to Torah.
When I think of the Purim holiday, I tend to think of noise-making, carnivals, costumes, and cookies. It was definitely one of the more fun Jewish holidays when I was a kid. But, as an adult who has actually read the Book of Esther, I realize that there are many parts of the story that are not so kid-friendly.
1. While I did dress up as Queen Esther for at least one Purim carnival as a child, it turns out that the story does not treat women well. Ahasheurus’ first wife, Vashti, was asked to parade naked in front of the king and his friends. She refused, and was replaced as Queen because of her unwillingness to appear nude before a group of drunken men. It was Esther, a woman who was willing to do this, who was rewarded by the King and became a hero of Jewish tradition. Throughout the text, there are several troubling details about how women are treated throughout the story, including in the king’s harem, where women were kept as concubines whose role it was to please the king.
2. There is a lot of murder in this story. The Jews felt threatened during the story until thanks to Esther, the king decided to save the Jews. The catch was that the decree to kill the Jews could not be reversed, so the king instead allowed the Jews to defend themselves. The oppressed (Jews) become the oppressor, killing not only their attackers and the sons of Haman, but also 75,000 Persians. Personally, I find it hard to claim that murdering more than 75,000 people was self-defense.
3. Revenge is a powerful theme associated with the Purim holiday. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, the traditional Torah reading is the story of the defeat of Amalek. The Bible speaks of the Amalekites as cruel people, and thus the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Amalekites. The connection to Purim is that its villain, Haman, is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. Thus, when one reads about wiping out the Amalekites and then reads about the Jews committing murder at the end of the book of Esther, one might conclude that violence and revenge are celebrated in these texts.
4. Drunkenness is celebrated on Purim. In the Talmud, it says that one should drink to the point where he no longer can distinguish between the bad guy (Haman) and the good guy (Mordechai). This is clearly an adult angle of the holiday.
5. And remember those good cookies? Hamantaschen! I always learned the three-cornered cookies were representative of Haman’s hat or his ears. It turns out that they may more closely resemble female genitals. Lilith Magazine’s Rabbi Susan Schnur writes:
So … . can I prove that hamantaschen are contemporary sacred vulva cakes? No. But it certainly makes academic and gut sense to me: that parthenogenetic (self-fertilizing) hamantaschen—pubic triangles traditionally filled with black seeds—are pre-spring, full-moon fertility cookies, suggesting the potency of female generative power, and heralding women’s and the Earth’s seasonally awakening creativity.
What does all of this mean? Should we skip the Purim fun for kids just because the holiday has adult themes as well – and in some parts, disturbing messages? I don’t think so. I think it’s important to celebrate the holiday across the ages. And, then, my hope is that every child grows up and wants to learn the “rest of the story” because those details are fascinating and important as well. They shed light on the biblical authors and their worldview.
This week our Torah portion (Tetzaveh) will open commanding the Israelites to “light lamps that will burn day into night and night into day,” eternal lights. If I read our sacred mythology as Jung would read a dream, every object is the dreamer—me/us, and so I wonder what it is to be a flame always burning. A lamp generates heat and light—energy. What might my role be as a ready source of power maintained in a perpetual state of warmth and illumination?
The Book of Proverbs teaches: “The human soul is the lamp of the Lord.” Does this means that we have the capacity to light God’s way, or, even more significantly, to light God’s fire, warming God’s heart, arousing God’s creative and sustaining impulse? To be a lamp of the Lord suggests that I am empowered to fashion myself as a medium of divine accomplishment. Perhaps I have what it takes to nurture God in God’s work. Perhaps God welcomes, or even needs, my participation. If my soul is a flame fueling God’s spiritual irrigation of the world, then keeping my wick wet and my fire burning gives me agency in the outcome of it all, and agency give me hope in the face of the very real darkness that exists.
I like to imagine a circuit of energy that connects me to my Creator in a give and take that quickens the flow between us. Our relationship is in that flow. God streams spiritual light into the world on what the Zohar calls a River of Light. God’s light imbues all I encounter with a vitality that has the potential to transform the quality of my life and all life. Our mystical tradition teaches that it is our human work to discover and release the sparks of godliness embedded in Creation so that they fly free, revealed. Affected by God’s light as I encounter it in the world, I can be moved to raise my behavior in the manner that we call “mitzvah,” acting with awareness and appreciation. In turn, God is gratified by all that I notice and honor, and God’s desire is stimulated so that She overflows Her bounty yet again and more light flows from Eden.
I even like to imagine that, as a lamp to the Lord, my dedicated attention to particular mitzvot can shine light on specific needs in our world, inspiring God’s empathy to express itself in ways that stream divine grace into those suffering sectors.
Our Torah portion calls for “pure oil pressed from olives” to fuel the eternal light. Proverbs also teaches that “mitzvot are a lamp and Torah is light.” The Midrash says that we fuel the wicks with which we warm and ignite God, and light Her way, with a purity of action pressed from us like oil is pressed from olives. Pressing ourselves, we put pressure on ourselves to continuously behave in ways that respect all inhabitants of the earth and all that we borrow from God’s Creation. Our mitzvot bring light to the world directly, of course, making it a better place, but through this lens acts of goodness also empower us to affect God, increase God’s light and the way in which it shines upon us.
God’s job is to perpetually renew the act of Creation, ours is to perpetually light God’s fire. Maybe that’s what it means to partner with God creating our world.
Note: This post is inspired by a teaching offered by Rabbi Sara Leah Schely on the occasion of the end of her year of mourning for her mother, may her memory be a blessing.
Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.
I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?
Pop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.
So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.
When people say they love how easy it is to connect with their rabbi, they don’t just mean that “rabbis are just like us” in an Us Weekly sort of way. Rather, they appreciate how their rabbi is able to connect a message – ethical, spiritual, historical, ritual, etc. – to pop culture. A few years ago, together with an Orthodox rabbinic colleague, I created PopJewish.com. The focus of this blog was to give rabbis a forum to connect Jewish teachings with the pop culture of the day. Essentially, it takes what people are talking about anyway and brings in the Jewish message.
The times when a rabbi wasn’t considered a regular person who took out the garbage, had cereal for breakfast or binge watched an entire season of House of Cards are over. There might be some negatives to rabbis letting their guard down and schmoozing with congregants about a mindless fiction book they just downloaded to their Kindle or what they thought of the Oscars last week, but ultimately it makes us more human and more relatable. And that’s a good thing.
Today I was in the Georgia Capitol to speak against a bill entitled the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The battlelines have been drawn, for the most part in familiar places. Supporters tend to highlight that the bill protects the rights of the religious and does not impinge too much on the lives of anyone else. Opposition to the bill emphasizes that the measure would legalize discrimination, especially against those whose sexuality, gender identity or expression are deemed forbidden by another’s beliefs. The fear of government overreach into people’s personal lives, a powerful reason given by some of the bill’s supporters, is not something to be taken lightly. However, as a Conservative rabbi, and what is often called “a person of faith,” I find more harmful the way my state’s current denial of the legality of same-sex marriages affects my own religious life greatly.
Within the Conservative movement, I have seen great scholars of Jewish law struggle with how to understand the holiness of a loving relationship between two men or two women or a family that is built on these relationships. My inspiration to become a rabbi, however, came hand in hand with a strong sense that Jewish teachings of the holiness of sexuality and recognition of the image of the Divine in every human being had to point toward fully including and celebrating loving relationships across the spectrum of human sexuality and gender.
I became a Conservative rabbi despite that the movement’s official policies at the time did not reflect my own support of gays and lesbians becoming rabbis and being recognized in marriage. However, I believed that the Conservative movement would embrace this position as they now have. I have had the honor of performing same-sex weddings in Massachusetts and elsewhere. However now, despite my religious beliefs and the official permission of my religious institutions, I am told by the state of Georgia that weddings I would perform according to my faith would be considered invalid. And I am of course not alone. Many Christian, Jewish, and other religious leaders represent branches of our faiths that recognize and sanctify same-sex unions in matrimony. In this way, I believe that commitment to religious freedom, as well as freedom to act according to conscience, would call for supporting state recognition of same sex marriage rather than legislation that would allow only certain religious beliefs to hold sway over the way others live their lives.
Freedom is a powerful value without which our country’s greatest achievements would be meaningless. For me, what Jewish tradition teaches us about freedom is that it goes hand in hand with the respect for human dignity and the call to be holy that are core values of our Torah. The continuing recognition and support for all, regardless of how and whom they love and regardless of how they identify and express their gender, is for me a vital part of living in good faith.
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In recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others. Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.
As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.
However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter. While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.
When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be. And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.
We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.