Tag Archives: featured

Honest Jewish Outreach

Jewish Outreach is a buzz term nowadays. Every organization seeks to do outreach in order to demonstrate relevancy to its board and donors. In addition, outreach is an effective way to increase participation in the organization and financial support in an era of struggling economic times and growing disaffection with organized Jewish life. Indeed, outreach is about taking one’s message public and sharing it with a larger disconnected audience. We should support genuine outreach in our communities.

As someone who has served both in a campus context and in synagogues I have seen numerous Jewish outreach organizations. In fact, during my time as a campus chaplain I developed close friendships with Christian outreach professionals as well. The one thread that united all the genuine outreach organizations was honesty and integrity.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a Christian Evangelical outreach professional on campus. Do I need to make sure my students are educated about their own faith and confident in their own beliefs? Absolutely. Yet, I cannot rightfully condemn a open and honest Christian from spreading her or his beliefs. I can only do my best to teach and inspire my constituents.

However, as many times as I have encountered genuine outreach organizations I have encountered illegitimate ones as well. What makes an outreach organization not really genuine? These are some of the indicators that I have observed over the years:

  • Where do the outreach professionals or rabbis spend most of their time? Do they linger in existing Jewish institutions like synagogues or the local Hillel where they will only encounter already affiliated people?
  • Where does the outreach organization set up shop? In the heart of the affiliated Jewish neighborhood or in a place where many Jews live but few who are connected to Jewish life?
  • Do the programs the organization run exist in consonance with the values of the people who lead the organization? For example, if the Jewish outreach organization is a black hat yeshiva do they do programming that violates their principles or core beliefs, like a non-gender segregated religious service?
  • Who is a successful “graduate” of their outreach? Where do they end up in their Jewish journeys? Be careful to pay attention to the diversity in lifestyles among the graduates and not the newcomers.

It is very important to identify genuine Jewish outreach organizations from the others. Genuine Jewish outreach organizations spend their time not in the Jewish neighborhood and work with people who have no existing Jewish connection. Their programming reflects the values they hold important and they do not compromise their core values in order to attract new participants.

Oftentimes, groups or individuals seek to co-opt the term Jewish Outreach when what they really mean is Jewish Redirection. In other words, their aim is to disaffiliate people currently connected to Jewish life and re-affiliate them to other organizations they deem more “kosher.” They do not exist in a holistic relationship with the rest of communal Jewish life but rather are in a constant state of competition with it.

The more informed we are about the various Jewish organizations within our communities the better choices we can make about what to attend and participate in and who to support. Jewish outreach deserves our support, Jewish redirection does not.

Posted on November 30, 2012

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

Dreaming About the Powerball Jackpot

Yes, I caught Powerball fever these last few days. And yes, I knew my odds were small (my favorite example: if you took the distance from New York to Los Angeles and chose one specific inch on that journey, those would be your odds). And so even as I knew intellectually that my odds were infinitesimal, I still plunked down a few bucks to play.

In response, one of my colleagues came up with an excellent rationalization: “It is cheaper than seeing a movie and provides many more hours of entertainment in the daydreaming department.”

On some level, she was right. In a Q&A session with psychologist Daniel Gilbert, one person noted that the value of the lotto ticket isn’t the winning — it’s the good feeling that the anticipation creates. “To put it another way,” this man argues, “for the dollar investment, you can have a much better feeling than flushing it down the toilet, which you cannot have a good feeling from.”

Having hopes and dreams are crucial to our well-being. We have to fantasize about the way our lives and our world might be, because they impel us forward. That sense of a better future is inherent in Judaism — we talk about the “day when God’s name shall be one” and look towards the day when we live in a world of peace and justice. The State of Israel came into existence because one journalist who said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” And even the Israeli national anthem is entitled “The Hope.”

But it’s not enough simply to dream — we have to put in the work to make those dreams happen. And when we forget that, things like lotto fever can become dangerous. It’s fine to spend $10 to release the chemicals that allow us to enjoy our fantasy of a big house and fancy cars. But at least one person spent $450 dollars on Powerball tickets. Almost certainly, that was an amount of money that impacted her life — and not in a good way.

So it’s great to dream…but not at the expense of reality. Instead, we should be asking “Where am I now? Where do I want to be? And how do I work to get from where we are to where we want to be?”

Because the other factor that many people forget about in lotto fever is that as long as we not in poverty, money doesn’t really make us happy. Instead, as a lot of significant research shows, it’s not what we have but what we do that brings us joy: Connecting with friends. Making a difference in people’s lives. Developing a sense of gratitude for what we already have. And those are things that require their own investment of time and energy.

And as Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic reminds us, people who “who aren’t careful to cultivate happiness skills such as optimism, a charitable attitude and savvy money management habits often wind up in more wretched circumstances than where they started.”

Those skills, too, are ones that need to be honed and developed. So even if you win the lottery, there would still be work to be done.

In other words, yes, it feels good to dream. But in truth, it’s doing meaningful and important work that makes you feel great.

(This post was cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on November 29, 2012

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Who speaks for Judaism?

As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest.  The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage.  Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013.  British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.

For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air.  Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.

However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time.  The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community.  Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down.  The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church.  The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.

And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time.  Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.

Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK.  Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable.  Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.

In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent.  While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great.  Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.

In truth, these are not new phenomena.  This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label.  But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part.  They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.

Those needs still exist.  And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs.  But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together.  Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.

And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.

Posted on November 28, 2012

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A Pivotal Moment

“I hate them,” he said, with quiet conviction.

“Who do you hate?” I probed.

“Them. The Palestinians. I hate them.”

It was at that moment I realized that I held in my hands a pivotal moment. My response had the potential to shape my children’s lifelong attitudes regarding Israel and her neighbors.

I used to be more of a peacenik. I believed that both sides had legitimate points and (relatively) equal rights to the land of their ancestors. But as time has passed, it has gotten more and more difficult for me to have compassion for those on the opposing side.

We Jews have a historical right to the land. It was promised to us by God; hence the moniker, The Promised Land. But it would be inaccurate to deny that there were other peoples living there even at the time of the Bible. If “Joshua Fit De’ Battle Ob Jericho,” as the Negro spiritual goes, there must have been someone with whom to battle. To pretend that there was not a sizable and deeply-rooted Arab population in the land is both foolish and simply wrong.

The time period leading up to the establishment of the sovereign State of Israel in 1948 is fraught with geopolitical missteps and gaffes that charted this current course for disaster. From the very beginning of Israel’s existence, she has been under near-constant threat from enemies, both external and internal, always having to defend her right to exist to the international community. Along the way, decisions made by Israel’s government have contributed to, though not caused, the untenable situation.

And then there is the fact that none of the surrounding Arab countries have done anything to help the Palestinian people.

And then there is the reality that the Palestinian people have continually chosen leaders who have their very own selfish and self-serving interests at heart.

And then there is the inevitability that years of oppression, whether real or perceived, whether by Israel or their own leaders, has instilled a hatred and resentment in the Palestinian people that locks them in this vicious cycle of violence.

And…
And…
And…

And none of that matters in this moment because I have this one opportunity to give the “right” answer.

“No, you mustn’t think that. You must never think that.”

And I say that because I don’t want to become like “them.” Like the terrorists. The ones who have so little regard for human life that they knowingly and willingly place their weapons among their most innocent and vulnerable. The ones who choose to use the money given from the international community to increase their firepower rather than build up a healthy infrastructure for their own people.
They are Hamas.

“If you want to hate someone, my dear children, hate them. Hate the haters. Hate the murderers. Hate the terrorists. They are the ones who have been shooting rockets into Israel for your entire lifetimes. They are the ones whose actions allow just 15 seconds for kids like you to run to bomb shelters. But feel only compassion for the innocents who are being used for political gain. Feel empathy for the children whose government builds weapons that will kill them rather than shelters that will protect them.”

Is this an oversimplified response? Is it a white-washed one? Yes, to both.

There will be time enough to revisit this situation and its nuances now – please God – the fighting has ceased.

But my children are still young. And they are still impressionable. And above all else, I want them to cling to the Jewish ideal that all life is sacred. Even the lives of our enemies. So I show them footage of the humanitarian aid that the IDF safely transfers over the border with Gaza. We read stories about the injured brought into Israel and cared for by Israeli medical professionals. We see pictures of military actions that are halted when intelligence indicates that the loss of human life is too great to justify them.

Because the moment that we regard all Palestinians with hate, we will have lost our own humanity. And that would make us no different than the terrorists.

Posted on November 27, 2012

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Are We Living Up To Thanksgiving’s Potential?

So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?

Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?

But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.

Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.

Posted on November 26, 2012

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The Reprieve

Were you aware that every year, erev Thanksgiving, a turkey is sent to the White House for the president to pardon? Well, actually, two turkeys are sent, in case one cannot fulfill its duties.

I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately  thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.

I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.

The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life.  I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.

Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that  it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading

Posted on November 21, 2012

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Can a Rabbi Marry Two Non-Jews?

“Can a rabbi officiate at a wedding of two non-Jews?” a colleague asked on a on a rabbinic Facebook group last week.

Interesting question, I thought. As a hospital chaplain, I served the needs of people of all religious persuasions. I recited prayers for healing, brought religious ritual objects to patients, and in one case said last rites for a patient when a priest could not get there in time. All this time, I was acting as a rabbi with a grounding in my own tradition. Others acknowledged my standing as clergy and saw me as a conduit through which their religious needs could be served. The fact that I was a rabbi, and not from their faith tradition, did not matter.

Why then would it matter if two people who were not Jewish wanted a rabbi to marry them? It is starting to happen more often than you might think. A few years ago a non-Jewish friend of mine asked me if I would officiate at her wedding. In the end, she bowed to parental pressure and went with their minister, but she confided in me that it would have been much more meaningful for her to have me, a close, friend officiate than someone she really did not know. Several people I know have gotten on line “ordination” as a universal life minister so that they could marry friends or relatives. Remember the TV show Friends? Joey does this so he can marry his friends Monica and Chandler. Having a personal connection to the officiant is becoming more important than having an officiant from a particular religious tradition.

Does anything in Jewish tradition forbid a rabbi from officiating at non Jewish marriages? Not really. Until now, no one would have asked a rabbi to do such a thing. As a rabbi, I would make some changes in the traditional Jewish ceremony so that it would apply to the situation at hand. But my power as clergy in the US still makes it a legal wedding under US law. It may not be a valid wedding under Jewish law, halachah, but since these are non-Jews, whether or not it is valid according to Jewish law does not pertain. Many of the symbols of a Jewish wedding translate beautifully in to any wedding – a marriage contract where the two parties spell out their commitment to each other, a wedding canopy signifying the new home being created, a series of blessings for the new couple, and a broken glass to remind us of their commitment to each other in good times and bad.

So do I think that a rabbi can officiate at a marriage between two non-Jews? My answer is a resounding yes.

Let the celebration begin. Mazal Tov!

Posted on November 19, 2012

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The Shame of Israel

It was after sustaining over 1,000 rockets fired into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip since the beginning of 2012, more than 130 rockets fired just in the past 3 days alone that Israel finally responded militarily. The barrage of rockets landing in indiscriminate locations — preschools, shopping malls, bus stations and homes — was just becoming too unbearable for the one million Israelis in the range of the rocket fire. It is astounding that even one day of such an assault could be bearable let alone months and months of the same continuous fear of imminent death.

What country would tolerate approximately 1/6th of its population being assaulted by rockets on a daily basis? What country would sit back and do nothing while a sizable portion of its citizens left home everyday and kissed their children goodbye like it was the last time they would ever see them because it very well might? Would the United States find that an acceptable way of life? Did our President not order the intrusion into a sovereign state — Pakistan — and the elimination of Osama bin Laden? Did not most of the free world celebrate that action?

Yet, I could not help but notice the disparities in my Facebook feed these past few days. As a former campus rabbi I am connected to many people in their late teens and early twenties on Facebook. It was shocking to me to see words like “genocide” thrown around by people in this demographic in reference to Israel’s act of self defense. Why would Israel’s right to self-defense provoke exclamations by young American Jews about how horrible it is to be connected to the Jewish people during this moment; how embarrassed they were for the actions of fellow Jews and how they cry for the loss of Palestinian life?

Let me be clear. All people of good conscience cry for the loss of innocent Palestinian life. All life is infinitely sacred and of immeasurable worth regardless of religion, ethnicity, race or political affiliation. All people are created in the image of God. But where is the condemnation of Hamas? Where are the tears for the Israelis killed? Where is the heartbreak for children not knowing if they will live another day because they took the brave act of going to school?

I strongly believe that one can love Israel and be critical of Israel at the same time. I strongly believe that indeed to be a lover of Israel means to want to help Israel achieve a more just and more perfect country living in peace with its neighbors. Yet, this is not being critical of Israel. This is being ashamed of being associated with Israel.

Why the shame? Why the shame that a sovereign and free state chooses to exercise its absolute right to self-defense? The United States State Department, a government body that has often taken very critical positions of Israel, was unequivocal in its support for Israel to defend itself:

We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.

The phenomenon we are facing on college campuses is not objective and rational criticism of Israel. The phenomenon we are facing goes way beyond that. We are facing the results of a sub-culture on the college campus that glorifies the demonization of Israel. I do not mean to exaggerate the bias against Israel on college campuses. Each college is different and in most university environments the mainstream campus culture does not vilify Israel. Yet, there is a clear and undeniable sub-culture that seeks to depict Israel as a genocidal, maniacal regime bent on the utter and total destruction of all Palestinian life. It sees every action Israel takes that expresses its self-determination as a state as evil.

This sub-culture has deeply affected many young American Jewish students. If one wants to be progressive, peace loving and liberal there is a tremendous pressure to disaffiliate with Israel and to condemn its very existence, because when one denies the right of a free state to protect itself one is doing nothing less than denying it a right to exist.

There is no easy answer on how to counter this dangerous and subversive sub-culture. How does one work against something so popular and so cool to many of our young people? At the very least it is imperative that we are aware of this sub-culture because perhaps the most effective way to combat this blind hatred is by cultivating one-to-one personal relationships with the next generation of American Jews who are being impacted by this phenomenon.

We must work towards developing a sustainable culture of Israel engagement where one can be a lover and defender of Israel and through that love offer critique and constructive criticism. The answer to this sub-culture is surely not to deny the right of people to express dissent with the policies of Israel but it is to direct those criticisms in a productive way and one that seeks to embrace the narrative of the Jewish people in its ancient-modern homeland. It is to be proud of Israel, with eyes wide open of its flaws and not to live in shame of being Jewish and being in the generation privileged to live in a world with a free, democratic State of Israel.

 

Posted on November 16, 2012

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Wrong Blessing. Right.

Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.

Automatically I offered the blessing, Blessed are you Adonai, creator of the universe who has commanded us to wash our hands. To which she offered a heartfelt AMEN!

The moment could not have been more perfect.

Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.

Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.

In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.

Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.

I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.

Posted on November 15, 2012

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Petraeus: When leaders let us down

Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes.  While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story.  I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.

And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme.  Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention.  I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.

My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved.  While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.

How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship?  As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from?  Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?

Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior.  Sometimes we must speak out.  Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.

In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value.  I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him.  But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls.  We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?

And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time.  And that is a picture we don’t like to look at.  So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’  But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.

Posted on November 14, 2012

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