Tag Archives: Rabbis Without Borders

Tomorrow’s Rabbi Today

What does the synagogue of the future look like? Today synagogue affiliation rates are dropping, as are affiliation rates across all religious denominations in America. This fact combined with the current economic climate is causing many synagogues to close or merge. Rabbis and lay leaders across the country are trying to reinvigorate their synagogues and attract new members. Much of the conversation focuses on the rabbi. What skills do rabbis need today to lead a successful synagogue? How do rabbis acquire those skills? What new roles can rabbis find outside of the synagogue walls?

Hayim Herring’s new book Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today strives to answer these questions. Rabbi Herring does an admiral job of describing the changing context of American synagogue life and exploring the issues synagogues must look at to strengthen their core functioning. He advocates using social networking and collaborative programs to increase a congregation’s reach. His assessment of how to create a strong organizational system is right on target. He then goes on to address the question of the rabbi.

Here, I think Rabbi Herring gets a lot right, but also makes a few missteps. I agree whole heartedly with his assertion that rabbis today need to be passionate leaders who can speak to the issues of the day and enhance our understanding of our world by using Jewish wisdom. I also agree that today’s rabbis need to be entrepreneurs. The Rabbis Without Borders program, which I direct, focuses on giving rabbis the skills they need to be entrepreneurs. We need rabbis who are thinking out of the box and using Torah in new and creative ways which will help people make meaning in their lives. I was turning each page of the book, saying to myself, “yes, yes, you got it right,” I then hit a page which surprised me.

The heading on this page is “Reducing Some Current Rabbinic Roles.” The first role listed is: pastoral counseling. What? I was so shocked I had to stop reading for a few minutes to absorb the thought. Rabbis should do less pastoral counseling? Rabbi Herring writes, “This is one area where they can scale back. Rabbis can partner with Jewish Family Service (JFS) counseling staff or develop a “train the trainer” approach, and train Jewish metal health professionals to provide a Jewish spiritual dimension to their counseling.”

I must respectfully disagree with Rabbi Herring on this point. Not all rabbis have a talent for pastoral counseling, and those who do not, are well advised to refer people elsewhere. However, pastoral counseling is an incredibly strong tool for a rabbi to use in making a significant impact in both an individual and a communities life. I experienced this first hand when I was the Director of the MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange NJ. The program was a join program between the JCC, JFS, and local chaplaincy group. In my role, I was available for pastoral counseling for the community at large. After introducing myself to the area rabbis, and leading a few workshops with the social workers at JFS so that they could understand my role and how it differed from theirs, I expected referrals to start coming in, which they did. Social workers are not trained to handle spiritual matters. In fact they are advised to steer clear of them. Even after conducting in service trainings with them, most of the JFS social workers were uncomfortable adding a spiritual assessment to their intake or addressing spiritual issues in their session. Several started referring clients to me for counseling. Together we were able to serve many individuals and help them work though mental and spiritual issues. In addition, rabbis, who did not feel comfortable counseling also, referred their congregants to me. My partnership with the area rabbis also worked well. I could serve their congregants needs, but not steal them away since I did not lead my own congregation.

But the greatest surprise came from the number of unaffiliated people who called me for counseling. A good 80%-90% of the people I saw for counseling were unaffiliated Jews. These were people who needed to a rabbi about an issue which brings up spiritual questions like bereavement or illness and had nowhere else to turn. Because I was based in a JCC, and not a synagogue I was easily accessible. Once I met with someone a whole host of questions and needs would be presented. I was able to skillfully introduce people to Jewish prayers, texts, stories, and meditations which could help them. Clients were amazed that Judaism had so much to offer. And in many cases, after meeting with me they expressed a desire to learn more and be connected to the community. I was then able to match them up with synagogue communities, or other leaning opportunities.

Pastoral counseling is a means to growing the larger Jewish community. There are some questions about the meaning of life and death which cannot be found through a Google search. Pastoral counseling is a unique skill and training which some rabbis and other clergy possess which is markedly different from what a mental health professional can offer. Rather than dismissing pastoral counseling as a skill rabbis can do without, I would instead argue that rabbis should receive better training in pastoral counseling and chaplaincy. When a rabbi is able to connect with an individual at a time of need, then that individual will have an emotional connection to that rabbi and by extension the Jewish community which will last a lifetime. We need to find entrepreneurial ways for rabbis to offer more pastoral counseling not less.

Posted on May 21, 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

The Supreme Court and the Health Care Act – A Populist Response

 

 

I can’t seem to decide, do I want to move America “Forward” or do I “Believe in America”?  I’m not sure if it matters that I back President Obama or Governor Romney because what I really worry about is what they can or can’t get done.  Congress seems so divided that precious little can ever get done.  According to Gallup, Congress’ Approval Rating was at 10% in February; now it is up to 17% (April).  By comparison, BP’s approval rating during the horrible oil spill in the Gulf was 16%.   I won’t be surprised when I see“Congress, we’re kinda like cheap gas” on the bumper of the Subaru that keeps my neighborhood politically informed.

 

The system of checks and balances that we have in this country looks to the Justice System, the Supreme Court, when the other two need sorting out.  With life-time appointments, our highest justices are suppose to be the adults in the room. Are they? Before the Supreme Court, right now, is the best Health Care bill our great nation has been able to produce since the creation of Medicare. It’s not perfect, but I believe in incremental progress when the alternative is gridlock and argument while those in need suffer.

 

Free Medical Services for 5000 at LA Sports Arena (October 2011)

The need for progress in health care is startling, and marks a divide be in our county between those who have and can afford access and those who cannot.  The journal Health Affairs, recently presented us with this stark reality:

“…Access to health care and use of health services for adults ages 19–64—the primary targets of the Affordable Care Act—deteriorated between 2000 and 2010, particularly among those who were uninsured. More than half of uninsured US adults did not see a doctor in 2010, and only slightly more than a quarter of these adults were seen by a dentist.”

The central role of government is to keep us safe, which includes much more then external military or terrorist threats, but also our physical and mental health.  The Talmud teaches that a rabbi is prepared to interpret law, when he or she can prove that which is unkosher to be kosher in twenty-four different ways.  I assume the same thing of Supreme Court Justices, civil jurists of the highest ability.  Activists or strict Constitutionalists, I believe that they can find what they want in the law to say whatever they want.  Which brings the issue to a moral question – Everyone deserves medical coverage.  In one of the most affluent nations in world history, it is an embarrassment that 5000 people have to wait once a year outside a sports area to get free health care (a big “thank you” to the volonteers at CareNow LA, now called Care Harbor).

If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out.  If the Health Act tanks, Obama won’t save us, and Romney won’t either.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “in a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”  So if they mess it up, its on us, people.  We’ll have to act. If they do strike it down, this is what I want you to do:  “I want you to go to the window, open it, and shout, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!‘”

Peter Finch as Howard Beale wins best actor due to his "Mad as Hell" speech in the 1976 film, The Network. Click here to watch the clip.

No matter how much we “believe in America”, it may take a collective crescendo of rage to move us “forward”.

Posted on May 8, 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

Vote for Rabbi…….

Well I did not make it to the Newsweek Rabbi list, or even the My Jewish Learning Real Top Rabbi list.  It would therefore be easy for me to be critical of this whole venture of voting for America’s Real Top Rabbis.  However, this Real Top Rabbi vote is a reminder that rabbinic work is being carried on daily by some genuinely talented rabbis who do not make the headlines, but really deserve a thank you from all of us.

This whole phenomenon does raise a vital question as to what characteristics we look for in our rabbinic leadership. This is certainly a very old question without a simple answer neither today nor in years past.

This past Shabbat I taught a Rashi from Leviticus 9:7. Moses instructs Aaron to approach the altar. Since Aaron was already involved with the needed sacrifices, Rashi apparently saw this instruction as superfluous and therefore assumed something was happening that warranted this command from Moses to Aaron. “Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach [the altar]. So Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this [function] you have been chosen!”

One could imagine Moses being critical with Aaron here: Nu- get on with it, offer the required sacrifices, and do not hesitate!  The Sefat Emet does not follow this approach. He understands Aaron’s bashfulness or reticence as a genuine religious/spiritual characteristic and one worthy of emulation. When commanded, Aaron acted, but with a certain hesitancy. What is that source for hesitating? Why not simply plow ahead eagerly?

I think it is not an expression of inadequacy to the task at hand. Rather, the Sefat Emet is suggesting that the serious religious personality has to take a breath, pause and consider: “what an awesome responsibility I have and an amazing opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah! What I am about to do is not something to be taken lightly. It is an extraordinary privilege to serve God and others.  Am I truly worthy of it?” Not only a duty one must perform, a mitzvah is a statement of our worth and dignity. Have I earned the right to perform it?

As I write this it is Yom Hazikaron and this is being posted on Yom Ha-atzmaut. In this context I am reminded of one of my teachers,  Rav Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He built an amazing educational institution whose students and teachers play important roles in Israel and world-wide. At a number of celebrations of the Yeshiva and at certain family celebrations he would walk around and sometimes express to nobody in particular “What did I do to merit this?”  Now Rav Amital knew his talents and was not expressing false humility, but his sentiment was genuine. I think it came from this sense of amazement; how did he merit the privilege to create and nurture a yeshiva of the highest, spiritual, educational and moral order. It is the appreciation of this privilege that gives the religious person pause.

So, if you vote, vote for all the rabbis!  And before you vote, pause and appreciate the privilege you have that these rabbis are your teachers and leaders.

Posted on April 26, 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

Sacred Snacking

It is very hard after the seder to get excited about the last days of Passover. Seven/eight days of eating matzoh! Once we have focused so much on the drama of redemption of the seder, there is little left to focus on other than food. For some the seder was a time to reflect on personal moments of redemption, for others a vision of social justice was discussed, for others the historical background was of interest and for many perhaps multiple themes were explored. However, how much reflection really happens during the rest of Passover? There is no ritual that sets such a dramatic stage as the seder. The story has already been told. All we are really left with is more matzoh to eat.

The Sefat Emet suggests that this very well might be the point. He reminds us that the Garden of Eden was all about food, the first sin was one of eating, and with our banishment from Eden we were told in Genesis 3: 17-19

“And to man He said, “Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field. With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

For the Sefat Emet, Passover is the holiday that transforms this eating from one of toil to one of blessing. Passover is about eating because it makes eating sacred. Redemption from Egypt undoes the curse of Eden and transforms it into blessing. He quotes Deuteronomy 16:3

“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”

In Genesis we are told “cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it (bread) all the days of your life“. Eating each day is a reminder of our exile from Paradise and our fundamental conflict and struggle with nature. However after the Exodus, our consuming of matzoh is now to be remembered “all the days of your life.”

Our eating is transformed from a tragic repercussion of sin into a sacred memory of hope and possibility. Our eating becomes not a sign of alienation but one of relationship to God and command/mitzvah. We will still toil and the production of food will still be complex. What has changed is our perception of the work. What was once a story of rejection by God is now the story of freedom and meaning. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”

Posted on April 11, 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

A multicultural view of Passover eating

Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”

This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.

Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.

But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.

As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”

But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.

In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.

So will I eat peanuts this Passover?

I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”

 

 

Posted on April 5, 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

Me, You and We

I have been an active participant in a group of Muslims, Christians and Jews that meets two to three times a year for presentations and dialogue. All of us would define ourselves as active religious practitioners.  Our conversations have moved into areas of genuine dialogue and have space for disagreements and different views from both within our religious traditions as well as between religions.  In other words, we have begun to trust each other.

Our meeting last week looked at the question of interfaith marriage. I was asked to be the Jewish presenter and a Catholic priest and Muslim chaplain at a local university presented their traditions.

What I found fascinating was that the priest, although an expert in canon law, approached the question from a pastoral care perspective. He clearly saw the couple and the success of their marriage as his desired outcome. The Muslim presenter gave a legal discourse and argued that while Muslim law allowed men to marry Christian and Jewish women, the reverse was not accepted. She argued that this should not be the case and that Muslim women should be allowed to marry Christian or Jewish men, citing a number of contemporary Muslim authorities. Parenthetically, at my table during conversation one of the Muslim participants commented that most Muslims would not find the contemporary authorities cited as being authoritative. This certainly has its parallels in contemporary Jewish legal debates and sounded very familiar to me as an Orthodox rabbi.  My primary focus was a theological argument why Jews should marry other Jews.  It was not intended to be an argument against interfaith marriage which would be silly and futile for reasons that my readers surely understand. Rather the primary focus was on understanding Jewish Peoplehood in theological/legal terms and how one’s decision whom to marry might be shaped by this understanding.

This is what I said:

“Jews stand in relationship to God as members of the covenant. In the Bible, this covenant while it begins in the Bible with Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people as a nation enter into this covenant at Mount Sinai when they receive and accept the Torah and it is reaffirmed forty years later in the Book of Deuteronomy before the death of Moses.

“You are standing, this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your officers, every Jewish individual; your children, your wives, the strangers in the midst of your camp, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water; to bring you into the covenant of Lord your God and His oath, which God is making with you today.

In order to establish you today as a nation unto Him, and He shall be your God, as He told you; and as He promised your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And not only with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath; but rather, with those that are here with us standing today before the Lord, our God, and with those THAT ARE NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Deut. 29, 9-11).

This Deuteronomy passage reaffirms the covenant that began in Genesis with a family, continued in the Book of Exodus as a nation at Sinai-thus the reference to be your God, and then adds with those who are not here today. This is understood to include all those not yet born. Covenant is rooted in family and peoplehood. It is not a relationship made with a single individual qua individual, but with a family and then a nation.

The next passage from the Mekhilta, a third century rabbinic text, builds on this and elaborates on the implications of this covenant relationship.

“Rabbi says: This proclaims the excellence of Israel. For when they all stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah they all made up their mind alike’ to accept the reign of God joyfully. Further­more, they pledged themselves for one another. And it was not only concerning overt acts that God, revealing Himself to them, wished to make His covenant with them but also concerning secret acts, as it is said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God’ and the things that are revealed,” etc. (Deut. 29.28). But they said to Him: Concerning overt acts we are ready to make a covenant with You, but we will not make a covenant with You in regard to secret acts lest one of us commit a sin secretly and the entire community be held responsible for it.”

Now this passage is seen as a dialogue between God and the people. God makes a covenant, but the implications of the covenant are that that the people are responsible one for another and therefore accountable when people sin and transgress. Here the people agree to that but with one limitation, it only applies to public transgressions. How can I be responsible for something someone has done in private? God agrees and therefore a text from Deuteronomy 29 is quoted that secret acts belong to God, but revealed public acts are the responsibility of the people.

Now this understanding creates the principle of “All Jews are responsible one for another, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”. Now this was not understood as only responsibility and accountability on a social level, but as a metaphysical construct of creating a religious sense of peoplehood.  Let me describe how this plays out. For example, before I eat I am required to make a blessing over the food. It is quick and usually all of 7-9 words. However, Friday night for example in my home before we eat the bread at the Sabbath dinner only my wife makes the blessing and everyone answers Amen. Now if it is my responsibility to say the blessing, how can my wife recite it for me or the others at the table? The answer is we share this covenantal peoplehood bond, and her reciting of it is as if I have done it as well. We are linked together in the performance of commandments. 

You can see this also in the Jewish wedding ceremony. This is the last blessing recited at the wedding ceremony.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King/Ruler of the universe, who created joy and happiness, groom and bride, gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, love, friendship, harmony and fellowship. Lord our God, let there speedily be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride, the sound of exultation of grooms from under their huppah, and youths from their joyous banquets. Blessed are You Lord, who gladdens the groom with the bride.”

The wedding ceremony is not only about my joining in marriage with another person, but it also means we share the same vision. The vision of redemption in this blessing is the vision of a redeemed people, and a wedding is the manifestation of that redemption. The prophet Jeremiah whose words are paraphrased here sees weddings as sign of the redemption and in getting married my wedding is a foretaste, a hint, a statement of faith, of the redemption of my people And this redemption is not a spiritual redemption of the soul, but a physical, in history redemption of a people into an ideal political, spiritual life. Weddings here are not a metaphor of redemption, but an expression of it.  Under the huppah, the wedding canopy, is this affirmation of peoplehood, again not a social construct, but a religious entity.

Finally, the vehicle, the institution for teaching the faith, but more importantly for living Judaism is not the synagogue, although it is needed and important, but it really is the family. Shabbat is observed at my table, I transmit and teach my children at the Passover Seder centered around my table. My table is an altar and the Temple, long destroyed, is recreated in my home. It is around this table that I teach my children. In particular we see this at Passover and  Deuteronomy 6 is an important text of the Seder.If your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?”.  You shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

My child asks what does this mean to you and I answer we. It is not about me and you, but about us. Our religious identity is centered in our we, being part of the people who stood at Sinai and we are in covenant with God. And it is that sense of we that I transmit to my family in the holy moments we gather in family.

This is why I married a Jew, this is why I want my children to marry Jews, and I cannot simply imagine sharing this covenantal responsibility and bond with someone who is not part of the people who share this consciousness. I cannot imagine having the deepest most intimate relationship with someone with whom it is only me and you and not we, sharing a sense of covenantal peoplehood. Can I fall in love with someone outside my faith who is a wonderful person in all the right ways, yes. Can I have a successful marriage, very possibly yes. But can I share a common religious bond, common religious language, stand as covenantal partners reaffirming Sinai and transmitting this consciousness? Here I would answer in the negative.”

What do you think?

Posted on March 29, 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

I Don’t Go To Brooklyn

Cruising on Fifth Avenue one day, a taxi is hailed by a man standing on the corner. Entering the cab, the man says, “Take me to the Palmer House.”

“The Palmer House?” says the cabbie. “That’s in Chicago.”

“I know,” says his fare. “That’s where I want to go.” “I’ll drive you to Kennedy,” says the cabbie. “You can fly.”

“I’m afraid of flying.”

“Then I’ll drive you over to Grand Central and you can take the train.”

“No, the train takes too long and besides, then I’d have to get from Union Station to the Palmer House.”

“If I drove you all the way to Chicago it would cost a fortune. Twice a fortune, because you’d have to pay for me to deadhead back to New York.”

“That’s OK, I can afford it. Here’s a few hundred dollars now. I’ll pay the rest when we get there.”

With no further argument to make, the cabbie drives out of Manhattan into New Jersey and then con­nects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, thence to the Ohio Turnpike, the Indiana Turnpike, and finally the Skyway into Chicago. He takes Stony Island to 57th Street, where he turns onto Lake Shore Drive. He drives north as far as Congress, cuts over to Michigan Avenue, goes north again until he can pull over to Wabash, drives back one block south, and screeches to a stop in front of the Wabash entrance to the Palmer House-after two days and one night of non­stop driving.

The passenger peers at the meter, gives the cabbie several hundred dollars to cover the fare and a decent tip, and then opens the door to step onto the sidewalk.

Before anyone can close the door, two women who have been standing at the curb slide into the back seat. Before the startled cabbie can speak, one of the women says, “We want to go to an address on Flat­bush Avenue.”

“Uh-uh, lady,” says the cabbie. “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”

While you may have to be a New Yorker to fully appreciate the joke, the truth is there are many places we are willing to go and also some to which we refuse to venture.  Some places we refuse to go based on principle, while other places we may be scared to approach. Sometimes there are borders or boundaries that may actually prevent us from going forth and other times we may not realize that all we have to do is gather up some courage and move forward.

This past week I had the opportunity to speak with students at a local university. There were two rabbis and each of us was asked to describe our formative moments in our Jewish development. What stood out for me was my first rabbinic position as the associate director of Hillel at major Midwest university. I was fresh out of eight years at Yeshiva. My boss was a Reform rabbi. Working with him and the hundreds of students I met forced me to move from having some deep commitments to issues to also having deep responsibilities to people.  When issues became people, things became much more complex. Boundaries may have expanded or in some cases contracted, but they became rooted in genuine human experiences. My responsibility was no longer only to the issue or ideology, but to the person as well.

In traditional congregations, an additional Torah portion will be read this Shabbat known as Parashat Parah-or Red Heifer Shabbat. To enter the Sanctuary or later the Temple, one had to be in a state of religious purity. If one had encountered a dead body, even in a circumstance of burial and fulfilling a commandment to look after the dead, one would become ritually impure. You would require a sprinkling of the ashes from the Red Heifer as part of the ritual purification process. To cross the sacred boundary in an impure state would result in karet, spiritual excision. 

What are the boundaries worth crossing? What borders should remain closed? When might our desires to be embracing of others open up doors for us. When do we say we cannot go there? What are the limits of the sacred we should not cross?

Posted on March 15, 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

Some Purim Torah

Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time.  This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it.  Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.

One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.

After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:

“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”

Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example).  While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.  

While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”.  While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically.  I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.

Posted on March 1, 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

Stewardship or Service?

Rick Santorum’s recent theological musings will likely prove to be an irresistible teaching moment for clergy of all sorts. Here’s my take on his take on President Obama’s take on the Bible’s take on nature.

First, let’s go to the tape…

On Saturday, at an event in Ohio, Santorum contrasted his own views with Obama’s “phony” theology, which is “not a theology based on the Bible, [but] a different theology.” A day later, on CBS with Bob Schieffer, he clarifed that he was not questioning whether or not Obama was Christian, but was speaking specifically about the President’s environmental policy:

Well, I was talking about the radical environmentalists…That’s what I was talking about: Energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.

In contrasting “stewardship” with “service,” Santorum is alluding to the divergent creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Yes, “stories.” Biblical scholars have long noted that there appear to be two stories about the creation of the world in opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates the heavens and earth majestically, with divine speech; in the second, God is more of an artist, fashioning people out of clay. Many people (including many people of faith) accept a theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis which posits that several different written sources existed independently of each other, in some cases for hundreds of years, before they were finally edited together sometime after the Babylonian Exile. People who see the Bible through this lens would see the two different creation stories as reflecting the understanding of two different authors or schools, and would be interested in what the differences between them can teach us about their respective writers.

Scholars assign Genesis 1-2:4a to the source known as “P,” whose major claim to fame is the book of Leviticus. The “P” Creation story has God imposing order upon chaos, a process culminating in the creation of human beings “in God’s image.” Humanity is charged with subduing nature and ruling over it (or “having dominion” over it)…which is to say, humanity is charged with continuing God’s work of majestic mastery.

The version which begins with the second half of Genesis 2:4 is typically assigned to the “document” known as JE. It seems to reflect a more rural worldview. JE’s first human is a farmer, placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to “work” it (or even, without betraying the original Hebrew, to “serve” it) and to “guard” it. Limits are placed on humanity’s dominion over the planet in this creation story.

One need not accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to learn from the contrasts between these two chapters of Genesis. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” (also part of this week’s zeitgeist…thank you very much, David Brooks, for acquainting your readers with The Rav) sees in “Adam I” and “Adam II” contrasting, but necessary, expressions of a sound relationship between humanity and nature (and God). The “majestic man” of Genesis 1 and the “covenantal man” of Genesis 2 are both incomplete pictures of a human being. Taken together, they begin to describe us in our complexity. Indeed, for Soloveitchik, one couldn’t exist without the other, and the presence of the two of them is evidence that one very talented Hand wrote both stories.

Are we to master the world, subdue it, have dominion over it? Or are we to guard it, preserve it, perhaps even “serve” it? The Bible doesn’t answer that question; it merely helps us know how to ask it. And while Rick Santorum speaks the helpful language of “stewardship,”  by placing that term in opposition to “service,” he seems to be leaning toward a view that is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by “Adam I” thinking. For his part, President Obama’s environmental policies may lean more “Adam II” than Candidate Santorum’s (or not — ask some environmentalists what they think!), but to brand them as the product of a “phony theology” is to demonstrate a weak understanding of the full breadth and complexity of religious teachings on humanity’s relationship to this vast and bountiful, but by no means infinite, home.

Posted on February 21, 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

The State of the Jewish Union

The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.

Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.

Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.

The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?

(Click to view the Opening Scene)

It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.

Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.

Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”

Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.

Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.

Posted on January 31, 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