Christmas trees are for sale on every corner, it seems, bringing the scent of the woods to the streets of Brooklyn. Christmas lights adorn streets and houses, and carols play in all the stores. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has earwormed into my head. I’m remembering last year, when my Harry Potter-loving family attended a seasonal event, the Harry Potter Yule Ball. The Yule Ball is an all-ages rock ‘n’ roll show that comes out of a movement of fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The crowd was mostly people in their 20s and 30s, a few of us in our 40s or older, and some kids like mine—young teens and tweens. We didn’t go because it was Christmas-y, but because it was Harry Potter-y.
A number of years ago, some fans formed a band called Harry and the Potters, and this began a genre that is called Wizard Rock, or Wrock. It now includes quite a large number of bands, some of which performed at the ball. Their music is what I would call midrash on Harry Potter. It takes the perspective of characters in the books, exploring their thoughts and lives. One example is singer Lauren Fairweather, who writes songs like “Maybe,” which is from the perspective of character Severus Snape.
There was fan-created merchandise at the Yule Ball, and information about the Harry Potter Alliance, a social justice organization that has brought together Harry Potter fans (and, later, Hunger Games fans too) to work for equality, human rights, and literacy.
It was my first experience with Harry Potter fandom and the midrash it has generated. Among the millions of fans of J.K. Rowling’s work, there are a subset for whom the Harry Potter saga has deep resonance. They were the ones performing, and the ones who were there that night. My family had gone on a whim, but there were others for whom the evening was meaningful in a profound way.
At the end of the night, the final song Harry and the Potters performed was “The Weapon (We Have is Love).” To my surprise, the fans standing around the stage put their arms around one another as they swayed and sang passionately along.
I suddenly felt that I was witnessing the birth of a religion. It had familiar elements: a sacred scripture, interpretation of that scripture, a social action component. Its adherents are emotionally involved with it and feel a sense of community with each other. There are differences from most of the established religions, too: There’s no deity to try to figure out, and no history of oppressing others or being oppressed in the name of the religion.
The theology is very basic—at least at this point. The primary motivator is love: Harry’s mother’s love that saved him from Voldemort as a baby; Snape’s love for Harry’s mother; Harry’s love for Sirius Black and his friends, which ultimately allows him to triumph over Voldemort. Fans take the idea of this fierce, life-saving and life-altering love and apply it to their version of what many Jews would call tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I imagine that 500 years from now a deity might have developed, as well as separate denominations of Potterism—Snapians and Harrians, most likely. After all, it seems that that’s what religions do: they form, and after maybe 100 years, they split into different groups because there are different ideas of how to do it right. I don’t think that even a religion based on “the weapon that we have is love” would be different. And that’s okay. I would hope that the Harrians and Snapians would recognize one another’s Potterism as authentic, even if it’s not their preferred way of practicing their religion.
Probably I’m just making this up, and this fan movement won’t develop into a religion. I expect that many of the Harry Potter fans would be angry that I would even say that it could. But that was my feeling in that moment at the end of the Yule Ball, and it was beautiful to see the inspiration, the love and joy, the simplicity, and to imagine that the beginning of my religion, Judaism, was that way too.
We have all seen some great Vaudeville or movie clip of someone being caught unaware, getting acquainted with a 2 x 4 delivered straight to the noggin.
And as amusing as those scenes can be (my favorite may be with Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain). I think they hit our funny bones because (I am pretty sure) we have all been bonked in the head or the backside a number of times—and often when we aren’t really paying attention, either. Maybe because we are taking ourselves, and our lives, too seriously.
And this was a 2 x 4 week for me. A dear, old friend died. He had been a close colleague of my father, and Bill and his wife populate the landscape of my earliest memories. She always chipper, and he a marvelous mix of wisdom and belly laughs, a serious countenance and kind, gentle heart. They have always been what I call 2-o’clock-in-the-morning friends. The ones you can call any day or in the middle of the night, walk directly to the front door, and find them on the front step. The ones with whom you just pick up a conversation like it was yesterday—even if it had been months since you spoke.
So what is the 2 x 4? Simply that not only will he not be here, I cannot be there for him. And I wish I had done more. I think this is something many of us experience, whether or not we can even articulate what more we would like to have done. I’m not sure that the details matter, really, since we cannot go back in time. It would be easy for us to chastise ourselves about not making one more phone call, or one more visit. But I fear that response has the potential to keep us focused on ourselves and cast a shadow on our memories and even the relationship.
When I think of all that this fine man has meant to me, I cannot bear to taint my memories with negative thoughts. I would far prefer to stand solid, take the 2 x 4 full on the forehead – and awaken to the wisdom he shared with me.
And the wisdom? It was simple. Live, and strive, and take things seriously, and always look for the blessings and the humor in things. To do, and be, and share, and love with all the generosity we have, which is boundless. To do what our souls most need us to do even in the midst of challenges. And to laugh. And laugh again. In other words: to live well.
Along with my congregational duties, I serve as a hospice chaplain. In both of those roles, as you well know or can imagine, I am at all times close to death and dying. And to be very honest, I have yet to accompany anyone to her last breath who says she wishes she judged herself more harshly, or lived more sparely, or loved less.
So here is another 2 x 4: without exception, those who live well, with awareness of their blessings and the idea that they could be blessings to others, die well, as Bill did. They pass without regrets. I am grateful that their souls warmed and strengthened mine, and I feel that when I share my soul with others, the neshamot (souls) of all whom I have accompanied go with me into the world, transferred to others through my heart and hands. And I am reminded of the teachings of our tradition: we never know the effect we will have on others, now or in generations to come. Which is another wake-up call in itself.
How amazing it is to stand in any one moment knowing we are carrying the wisdom and love of those whom we have loved, and who have loved us. And how strange it is that so easily forget! Perhaps by keeping this in mind we can go back in time, and bring the best of our loved ones forward, forging a new relationship with them and the world, and get down to the very serious wonder of living in love and joy.
Now go ahead and click on the Donald O’Connor link above.
You know you want to : ]
I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.
Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.
Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.
Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.
Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world? Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?
So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.
We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.
The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary. Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:
“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”
The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.
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What if God took note of every mistake you made and considered it a glorious seed for a profoundly better future? God, it seems, is often counter-cultural. Whereas our society, often despite knowing better, constantly rewards achievement and success, God has an interesting track record of recognizing positive effort even when we are surrounded by failures of our own doing.
Take for example the Biblical character of Lot. Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham, father of our people, looked after Lot when his father died. When Lot grew, in age and in wealth, Abraham gave his the choice of land – and where did Lot choose? He chose to live first near the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and then he moved into Sodom, a city which would soon-after be known for its perversion of humanity and its disdain for God’s expectations for mankind (Gen. 13:12). Why would Lot choose to live among such people? Why, after being taken captive and rescued by his uncle, Abraham, did Lot choose to stay with them (Gen. 19:1)? Certainly, Lot is a flawed character – trying to appease a crowd that has gathered at your door to molest your guest by offering your two daughters is, even by Biblical standards, flawed (Gen. 19:8).
Juxtaposed with his uncle Abraham, Lot certainly seems to come up short, but is that not true for the rest of us? While Abraham might be the ideal, the rightful patriarch of ethical monotheism, Lot, who chooses to live with and among the flawed, the non-believers, and the sinners represents the rest of us. Lot, it seems, loves the townspeople of Sodom. He marries two of his daughters to them, and perhaps he even marries a woman from one of these sin ridden towns. Why else did she turn back to see their destruction (resulting in being turned to salt), and why else would he choose to live close by, still in view of those towns, even after God rescues him and two of his daughters (Gen 19:15-22)? It turn out, a lot of us are like Lot. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we cast out lot with the flawed and those whom we know are acting badly.
And here’s the real kicker with Lot: As misguided as Lot is, God sees fit to rescue him. God rescues Lot even after he repeatedly made the choice to live among the wicked and depraved people of Sodom and Gemorah. Clearly, his two daughters that were rescued with him had been raised in a culture where morality was “less evolved”. Believing they had no other choice, they got Lot drunk and raped him in an attempt to repopulate the tribe (Gen. 19:30-38). How perverse! How shocking! And yet… And yet, despite all the depravity, it will be Lot’s offspring that produces the redeeming figure of Ruth, whose linage would lead to the heroic figure of King David, and by extension the messiah!
It’s nice to have heroes like Abraham. But what if we could never be as singularly brave, kind, or devout as Abraham? What about us who, when we are tested continually fail? What about those of us who are drawn to “the wrong kind” or are ourselves “the wrong kind”? God seems to love us also. After all, the future of Abraham’s descendants is inextricably tied to the future of the descendants of his bumbling nephew Lot. Maybe, being “too good” is not God’s liking anyway. Our sages say we should love God with our positive side and our negative side. Does that not presuppose an acceptance of our darker inclinations? Perhaps too much order, too many rules, too much reason and goodness was not God’s intention for us? The story of Lot suggests that Nietzsche was correct in saying, “You must must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
God extends love not only to the near perfect in the world, such as Abraham. God loves the rest of us, just as He loves Lot even though he ties himself to the Bible’s most despicable townspeople. God’s love is a challenge to us. Can we love those who represent what we find to be most distasteful? Can we love ourselves when we know that we’re really screwed up? God can. God does.
I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
Porn in the City: Are the kids really alright?
What does it mean to grow up in the age of sexting, of Instagram and Snapchat (which lets you show a picture on someone else’s smart-phone, and then have it ‘disappear’)? I think about this because I work with teens, and their natural curiosity mixed with super-charged digital lives kinda freak me out. I wonder: Are we equipping them with what they need to live in an easy access, easy self-satisfaction world?
“Pornography should interest us, because it’s intensely and relentlessly about us. It involves the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of the self…” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).
For Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, sex was an adolescent obsession. At the end of the play his brother gives young Eugene a foldout picture of a topless woman. In reaction to this, Eugene write down in his journal: “A momentous moment in the life of I, Eugene Morris Jerome. I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas…. Puberty is over. Onwards and upwards!”
The line gets an appropriate laugh, as it should. The play is set in 1937 when a picture of a topless woman might be a rarity, but this is 2013, an age when there are approximately 200,000 commercial porn sites. This means that an introduction into sexuality no longer begins with a picture of a toplesswoman, but of a video of a couple having actual sex. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young man or woman with the expectation that porn-star sex is the norm.
Martin Buber taught that there were two natures of the self. The “I” which is we might sum up as shallow, and surface oriented. This is the “me” that is involved in world of doing things. This surface “I” in relation to the everyday, he calls “I-It”. There is, Buber taught, also the “I” that is experienced as “whole-being,” fuller, more complete, perhaps we could say “more alive.” This whole-being “I,” Buber calls I-Thou. A fair simplification is to say, sometimes we relate with our soul, and other times we do not.
A mistake of modernity, a poison, is to ignore the depth experiences that humans need (I-Thou) and focus completely on the surface experience of the mundane (I-It). We see this everyday – and with technology, we see this “shallowing” in potential escalation.
Our popular culture seems to be polarized on the topic of pornography. On the one hand it is scandalous and predatory (which it certainly is) and on the other its seen as the new normal (and what does it say about us if it is?).
“And yes, pornography is a business — as is all our popular entertainment — which attains popularity because it finds ways of articulating things its audiences care about. When it doesn’t, we turn it off. Pornography may indeed be the sexuality of a consumer society. It may have a certain emptiness, a lack of interior, a disconnectedness — as does so much of our popular culture. And our high culture. (As does much of what passes for political discourse these days, too.) But that doesn’t mean that pornography isn’t thoroughly astute about its audience and who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity, and the discontent at the core of routinized and civilized lives.” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).
What does porn tell us about ourselves, our culture?
Among other things, I think modernity’s great porn addiction speaks to the fact that we, in the age of speedy technology, and infinite private access, have grown selfish.
In an age that worships business, sexuality has continued to grow as a commodity; sex, from one perspective of our popular culture has become a transaction. There is little training of the self these days about being relational. Satisfaction of the self rather than another is the value these days. Sex, and satisfaction becomes transactional, self-absorbed, and to that extent non-relational, Buber might say, decidedly I-It, and I would add “less human.”
“If love is only self-interest, than love is a fake, a pretense… And can you imagine a life without love?” – A J Heschel
No wonder than, that porn is on the rise and marriage is on the decline. We haven’t given any value to the idea of generosity to another, or to love, and without that, what are we?
Sex is a natural human drive. Freud was right about that. Cheap, fast, and easy, are all hallmarks of the 21st century, so I doubt that porn is going away any time soon. Modernity gives us instant access to I-It. But our souls crave something deeper.
The solution has to be to teach our kids about love, about romance, about desire, about the ecstasy of your soul that can be. They need to learn that this can happen when you give of yourself, when you are a self in relationship to another self, when you think, and feel, and act for not only “me” in a particular moment, but about what is right and beautiful in “us.”
I and Thou.
“Everything is rent.” – Rent, by Jonathan Larson
This week our Jewish high school put on a production of Rent, a rather bold choice for a religious institution. I was very proud of the kids. Their performance was spectacular, but better, through dialogue with teachers, rabbis, surviving families and friends of people who lived and died of AIDS, they understood the message, and it’s a core, it’s a Jewish one: Life is the most precious gift we have, so let us not waste it.
The message reminds me of a favorite story:
A few hundred years ago, a Jewish merchant came upon a shtetl he had never visited before. The times we difficult, many of the usual towns in his travels had been ravaged by plague, or abandoned after a pogrom. Thinking about all the people in all those places broke the peddler’s heart. It broke again at this new town as he wound his way along the path to the gates of the town that led past gravestones and markers through a sprawling cemetery. It was not the enormity of the graveyard that stuck him, he had seen the fields outside of Cracow, Prague, and even Warsaw. No, it was the numbers on the graves: 9, 25, 12, 13. Oy gevalt! My God, he thought, these were children. This is a town that is bereft of her young!
When he reached the synagogue, he was warmly greeted by a few elderly gentlemen who were just leaving the great building in the town’s central square.
“A gutn tag,” one said to the peddler.
“Good afternoon to you sir,” he replied. “Tell me, what calamity has befallen your lovely community?”
“It’s too awful to speak of. Please ask the rabbi.”
The peddler entered the synagogue and found the rabbi at the front of the hall, he was seated at a long wooden table.
“Yes, my friend,” the rabbi said over the brown leather volume he had been pouring over.
“Rabbi, I am a peddler, a visitor to your town. I have visited many towns and cities that have been afflicted by war, by plague, and even pogrom. Rabbi, I have seen and heard of many tragedies, but your town, what horrid thing has befallen your townspeople?”
“You have seen our cemetery?”
“I have, and I cried for your children and for their parents too.”
“ I see,” said the sage, “ You were right to weep, but you may have misunderstood. It is the custom of our town not to list on the gravestone a person’s age, but rather to list on the marker the number years a person really lived.”
As an encore, the players in the show invited the audience to sing along to one of the show’s signature songs; Seasons of Love was printed inside the program. “Five Hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”. We reminded ourselves and each other to count the blessings of each minutes of every day, month and year we are privileged to share. Likewise, we reminded ourselves to make each and every minute count.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a number of bloggers are contributing to #BlogElul – a communal online project initiated by fellow ‘Rabbi Without Borders’, Phyllis Sommer. Each day of the month has been allocated a theme. Today’s theme is Love. You can read the daily contributions by following #BlogElul on Twitter. If you don’t use Twitter, a google search for #BlogElul will enable you to read many of the contributions.
Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called ‘Seven Sparks.’ Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, ‘Positive Jewish Living.’ The origins of both the book and the larger ‘Positive Jewish Living’ project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.
The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: ‘I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.’ From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: ‘I am free to love and be loved.’ She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction. Why does God need to introduce God-self? Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced. God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant). Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam). Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love. We also learn how to receive love. ‘It’s hard to feel that you are loved, if you’ve spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy. It’s hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism. When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it.” (Schafer, 2011).
At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called ‘Ignite!’ How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives? These are her suggestions. How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:
- I love myself.
- I have immense potential to grow.
- I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
- I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.
For your family:
- I express love generously and often.
- I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
- I give without expecting anything in return.
- I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
- I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
- I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.
At your Congregation:
- We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
- We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
- We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.