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

God’s Abortive Assassination Attempt

Parshat Shmot which we read this week contains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of the Torah. By putting it in its psychological context and reading it as psycho-drama, we may comes to terms with it and uncover its deeper meaning.                                                                                 assassination

Moshe Rabanu (Moses our teacher) grew up in the royal palace of Egypt and was raised by the daughter of Pharoah. As a youth his connection to his birth family was apparently non existent, or tenuous at best. He was nurtured among the Egypt aristocracy – dressed like them, talked like them. He was educated like them and indeed was one of them. Yes, he harbored some vague memory of his biological roots, which comes to the fore in a late adolescent identity crisis. He goes forth from the palace to “see his brethren”. Deeply touched by their desperate plight, his empathy is aroused and he strikes out at a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and kills him. The crime is witnessed by none besides the Hebrew slave that Moshe had rescued, but none the less the next time he approaches the slaves he is taunted for his crime. Word of his act reaches the Egyptian authorities and a warrant is put out for his arrest. Moshe is forced to flee to Midian.

He becomes a man without an identity. The Israelites with whom he might have thought to reconnect, have stabbed him in the back. The Egyptians with whom he shares a common culture have turned against him. He is forsaken and utterly alone. In Midian he is taken in by the local idolatrous priest and begins life anew. He marries Tzipora, his benefactor’s daughter. Moshe gains a family and an identity – he becomes a Midianite shepherd. The memories of Egypt recede, as do those of the enslaved Hebrews. For approximately sixty years Moshe lives a quiet life in Midian.

And then his simple life is shaken to the foundation by the Voice that echoes out of the Burning Bush, the Voice that forces him to unearth the distant memories that he has all but forgotten. He hears about the bondage and suffering of his long lost brethren, about a covenant forged by Abraham with a mysterious and hidden God who now commands him to return to Egypt, stand up to the despotic Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land.

Moshe is reeling, sent into a psychological spiral by this frightening Voice and its utterly outlandish demands. How could he return to the land that made him a fugitive and to the people that rejected and betrayed him? What connection could he possibly forge with those distant wretched slaves? Why would he want to leave his comfortable life and identity and become a crusader on a suicidal mission? So Moshe refuses to accede to the demands of the Voice. But it is unrelenting. Moshe stands his ground but the Voice does not back down. Yes – no. Yes – no. They go back and forth. Five times God comes at him. And at the end of the encounter, God reiterates His request/command and disappears … and Moshe is left utterly alone. If he intended to refuse one last time, there is no one there to hear his refusal.

Will he go back to Egypt? We do not know and either does he. He is completely confused, hurt, lost. He packs up the family for a journey in order “see if his brethren in Egypt are still alive”. Not a word about leading them out of slavery, for he does not know what he will do. And neither does he know any longer who he is at all.

“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at his legs, saying, You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me. He then released His grip upon him, and she added, Bridegroom of blood – to the circumcised!”

Moshe experienced God as trying to kill him. Perhaps waking up at night in a cold sweat, after thrashing about for hours in the darkness while wracked by nightmarish questions of personal identity and doubts concerning his own adequacy, Moshe can take it no longer. He cries out in anguish in the dead of night. Tzipora awakens, realizing that her husband is in the throes of a complete breakdown. She takes things into her own hands, in a flash circumcising the couple’s young son, thereby making a powerful statement and showing her husband where his true loyalty must lie. We are of the circumcised she tells him, the blood covenant of circumcision will define who we are from this point forward. My husband – let there be no more equivocation, says she to him.

And Moshe at that moment experiences catharsis. The tension is broken. He now knows with utter certainty who he is and what he must do. The doubts are gone, the tensions resolved. Everything becomes clear. It is as if God has released the death grip upon him and he has been granted a new identity, and new lease on life. The man Moshe comes full circle and returns to his roots and to his true self. Through the sacrificial act of Tzipora, Moshe is transformed from a Midianite shepherd into the leader of the Israelites. The bridegroom of circumcisional blood will now make his way to the people whose identity will be cut in their flesh. And the Israelites will be redeemed!

Posted on January 9, 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

A Moral Life? Or a Meaningful Life?

Meaning of LifeA few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”

But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,

If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.

In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.

The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:

There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way isTo guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.

So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.

Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”

Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.

If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.

 

Posted on January 8, 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

What Happened to Dinah?

Although we’re a bit beyond the portion, there’s been a lot of social media chatter about Dinah – possibly because of the December airing of a television version of the novel by Anita Diamant. I mostly ignored it until a friend asked me about Dinah’s age (without going too far into it, if you follow the timeline laid out in the Torah plainly, she must have been VERY young, possibly a child. She probably isn’t, though) – at that point, I somehow found myself drawn into thinking about this very disturbing story.

There are many difficult passages in the Torah, and the rape of Dinah is among them. Nevertheless, I find the idea of turning what is clearly a forced sexual encounter into some kind of love story (as Diamant does in The Red Tent) – to be very difficult indeed.

Dinah’s role story turns around the first four verses of chapter 34 of Genesis. It is clear from the text that Dinah was violated. In verse two it says,

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ:

“He saw her, Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land; and he took her; he lay with her; and he humbled her.”

What confuses the matter is that this verse is then seemingly followed a declaration of love:

וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָה וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָה

“His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.”

The number of disturbing things about this story start multiplying rather quickly here:

A man kidnaps and rapes a young woman, possibly a very young teen; he then, after forcing her, tells her he loooves her and has his father make an offer for her. Her brothers are outraged. They come up with a plot, telling Hamor that they can’t give her to the uncircumcised and that they’ll let his son marry her only if everyone circumcises themselves. Hamor sells this to his fellow citizens by noting how rich they’ll all get if they intermarry with this wealthy clan. The brothers of Dinah wait until the men of the city are weak from their surgery and then slaughter them, taking their sister home. When Jacob complains that their actions make him look bad, they respond, “הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ” – Shall he make our sister like a whore?

The “modern” take on this story is that it is about the disgust for exogamy. But a closer reading reveals something different.

It seems unlikely that Shechem was that besotted by a young girl – even a young woman – with whom he was unlikely to have had much interaction. And in fact, he clearly doesn’t “love” her before he violates her. The son of the prince may want her for the moment- but not, probably, because he loves her, but rather because abductions are a tried and true way to marry someone whose family won’t consent (in many cultures- some even today). He wouldn’t have known much about Dinah – but he – and his father – clearly knew whose family she was a part of. And there is some confirmation from the text itself (which a number of commentaries pick up on) that it was not just Shechem, but the entire city, who are implicated in this vile crime: “Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and plundered the city that had defiled their sister. (34:27)”

Note also the focus on family in the verses:   “Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land” and “Dinah the daughter of Jacob” – even though the story begins by calling her “Dinah the daughter of Leah.” As the daughter of Leah, who is not, of herself, wealthy, she is not too interesting. As the daughter of the wealthy Jacob, however, she is someone the son of a prince might be interested in acquiring. So he takes her. And he does it in such a way that – in the Hivite culture- makes her impossible to take back. She’s now someone – they presume – that her family must get rid of, because surely they can’t give her to anyone else now.

But the brothers of Dinah don’t hold that view. To them, she isn’t a pawn in a family dynasty, perfect for cementing an alliance between the city and a wealthy clan that can bring in a lot of money. To her brothers, she is not to be sold. Her brothers may be awful – and there’s a case for that – but clearly they cared about their sister. They didn’t say “shall our family name be blemished?” or “Shall our line be tainted?” but “shall our sister be treated as a whore?”

In other words, they refused to let her body be a pawn for financial exchange. Her brothers, unlike the Hivites, are saying that they don’t care what the state of her virginity is, they won’t stand for this behavior, and won’t write her off as ruined. Remember, the circumcision is a ploy. They have no intention of leaving her there, regardless. And they know that Hamor wants this deal, and will do whatever it takes to get them to settle there because he wants not their family, not their God, but their wealth.

Compare this episode to those of Dinah’s paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Both were claimed as sisters in order to avoid the threat to Isaac and Abraham that might have been posed by the local prince desiring them. In the case of Sarah, in fact, Avimelech does take her. One might even think of Dinah’s brothers’ actions as a corrective to these earlier episodes. In the case of Sarah, God has to rescue her: and perhaps, indeed, Dinah’s brothers do one better – in Sarah’s case, God goes to a great deal of trouble to make sure that Sarah isn’t defiled by Avimelech – in Dinah’s case, the brothers make it clear that they don’t care – she is their sister, regardless.

Our society also has its Shechems – we read in the news constantly about the ways in which womens’ bodies are treated as objects, and not a month went by in the past year without a story of how a high school or college student was sexually assaulted – and how it is the victim, not the perpetrators, who so often pay the price. In that atmosphere, I find it troubling to turn a story of rape into a romance.

The story of Dinah is still one of its time: we never hear what Dinah thinks, or feels; we don’t really know what happens to her beyond the speculation of the classical midrash. But we know that at the very least, her brothers care enough to protect her, and go against an entire society – and indeed their own father- to bring her home.

Posted on January 4, 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

Can Synagogues Be More Like Starfish?

Membership is lagging, we haven’t been able to convince the preschool families to join the synagogue and sales in the gift shop are down. What are we to do? Blame the rabbi! 

Members are not receiving their donation thank you letters in a timely fashion, the receptionist is not always friendly on the phone and the office forgot to print my great-uncle’s yahrtzeit in the weekly newsletter. What are we to do? Blame the executive director!

People make mistakes and that includes the professionals of synagogues, whether the rabbi, executive director or preschool director. A letter can wait in the outgoing mail box for too long. A receptionist might be having a bad day. It is natural to feel frustrated when bad things happen and to want to locate the person who is at fault. When our synagogues attempt to operate as a command-and-structure type of organization individuals will look up the chain of command and point the finger at the highest link they can reach.

However, most of our synagogues nowadays do not operate with strict hierarchies. The decision making of our congregations has evolved to a more a distributive fashion yet the way we communicate about our synagogues has not evolved with it. There are few synagogues where the current mode of operating is the senior rabbi says “jump” and the only question the rest of the staff and board of directors have is “how high?”. Staff, clergy and lay leadership operate in a collaborative and cooperative mode. We know this from experience and we know this intuitively but when things begin to break down and mistakes are made we revert to viewing our system as a solid command structure and view the source of the problem solely in the lap of one individual. Why?

I believe part of the problem is that we have not fully embraced our new way of operating. Is it made clear in the vision statement of the congregation? Is it communicated in board meetings? Is the membership informed of how the synagogue operates? When something goes wrong do board members point the finger at any one individual or do they look at it through a systemic lens?

starfishThere are so many advantages to distributive decision making. The starfish, a vulnerable creature to predators, can lose a limb but still function because it does not rest all of its functioning in one place. As we enter 2015 the landscape for synagogues is still a vulnerable one. The case for synagogue membership is a hard sell for many people. Many synagogue facilities remain both under-utilized and in need of major repair work. The place of the congregation in the fabric of modern society is less and less obvious for vast segments of the American Jewish population. Our synagogues are like starfish: beautiful, complicated organisms that are deeply vulnerable.

The time has arrived to not only transition to a more starfish-like way of operating — a distributed, holistic and balanced power structure, but to assertively and clearly communicate that to our membership. When something goes wrong, and something will always go wrong, the challenge is not to look for which clergy, staff member or board member to blame, but to understand how the system as a whole can operate better in the future. A Starfish Synagogue is a healthier synagogue and a healthier synagogue is a more attractive place for people to pray in, socialize in and ultimately become members of.

* Inspiration for this blog post comes from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom 

Posted on January 2, 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

A Smile from Beyond

light in caveI ended 2014 by making the trip from California to New Jersey to visit my father’s grave. I stood on frozen ground remembering the frigid day of his funeral fifteen years ago. On that day, Sylvia Heschel came up beside me at the graveside linking her arm in mine. I pulled her close thinking she sought the warmth of my body, but then she murmured: “I can see them now…” and I realized she was consoling me with her imagining of my father reunited, in death, with her deceased husband, my father’s beloved teacher and friend. In her minds eye these men who loved one another in life were loving one another’s company in death, sharing a scotch, perhaps, singing a niggun, most likely, surely talking about their life with God. Sylvia envisioned a continuity between worlds that I had not imagined until that moment. And in the years since, I have come to join Sylvia Heschel’s musing, finding comfort in imagining that Gan Eden is a welcoming community, a fellowship in the Beyond.

As we close out the secular year, we also close the book of Genesis, reading its last chapters this week, in which our patriarchal father Jacob dies and is “asaf el amav,” “gathered to his people.” His twelve sons carry Jacob’s embalmed body back to Canaan to the cave Abraham dedicated as the family burial plot. He joins his people, buried in the company of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah, the Cave of Machpelah just as much a community as the “old neighborhood” of the Jewish Cemetery where my father is buried at the feet of his in-laws and they at the feet of my grandmother’s parents, cousins and friends just across the grassy path.

The death of Jacob lends a transitory finality to the narrative of the patriarchs, but the trip back to the cave of Machpelah brings this ending ‘round to the beginning of the family story, indeed, to the beginning of biblical time, as, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The Zohar describes Abraham’s accidental discovery of the cave while he is chasing a runaway calf. He follows his little charge into the cave, and once inside Abraham becomes aware of a glow that illuminates two burial mounds. As he pauses to acclimate to the light, the image of Adam rises up from one of the mounds and smiles at Abraham. The Zohar teaches that it is in response to Adam’s sweet gesture of welcome that Abraham decides: this will be his burial place.

In another passage we learn that the light by which Abraham sees Adam gesturing to him is a radiance streaming into the cave from an interior gateway to Paradise. The Cave of Machpelah is a portal to Gan Eden, residence of everlasting souls, and also the symbol of both the primordial beginning and the messianic end of time. In the Zohar’s midrashic spin, between culminating one story and opening the next, the Torah returns, in a liminal moment of narrative transition, to the cave with it’s secret door to Eden, remembering its root in God’s glorious Creation and acknowledging it’s promise of God’s redemption. The Torah marks the end of the patriarchal story as we mark our own milestones and comings of age, pausing to acknowledge what and who has brought us to a given moment, while holding that precious moment within the context of the fulfillment we imagine our futures yet to hold.

Last week I returned to my family’s burial plot, making a big trip at a ridiculously busy time. My life is moving forward but I went back, for a moment, just to sing a psalm with my dad, just to touch base, just to be a prodigal returned for the briefest moment before projecting myself forward. I think I heard him affirm a decision I have been wrestling with; I imagined my dear parent rising from his mound nodding as he smiled at me. And I will take that smile into my own next chapter, feeling my father standing at my back as I cross this threshold empowered to nurture the Eden that is coming.

Posted on January 1, 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