Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dangerous Ideology That Is Cause of Charlottesville

Nearly thirty years ago I visited Natchez Mississippi. It is a beautiful and picturesque city situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is dotted with grand, historic mansions. We were led around town by a local guide. At one point she made reference to the War of Northern Aggression. I raised my hand to ask about this unknown war. “I have never heard of this war in all my years of study.” She said, “Y’all know, the war that began in 1861 when the Northern states attacked the South.” I said, “Oh! You mean the Civil War.” “No,” she retorted, “The War of Northern Aggression.” I opened my mouth to argue some more, but others advised me to let it go.

Perhaps I should not have.

The Civil War was not so much fought over secession. It was about slavery. Southerners believed that other human beings could be bought and sold like property. They were willing to die to preserve this horrible idea. The South lost. And yet as this weekend attests, the struggle continues. We continue to fight over the idea first taught in the Book of Genesis that all human beings are created in God’s image. All people, regardless of race, religion or gender, contain a divine spark. All are equal in God’s eyes.

In Southern cities there remain statues to heroes of the Confederacy.  These must now come down....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Breaking Bread

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the great eighteenth century Hasidic rebbe, once saw a man running around in a great hurry. (He must have visited New York City!) He asked the man: “Why are you running?” The man answered: “I am running because I have to earn a living.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak asked him: “How do you know that this ‘earning a living’ is running away from you so that you have to race after it to catch it? Maybe it is instead behind you, in which case you are fleeing from it.”

We chase after many things. We pursue career advancement. We run after bonuses and raises. Perhaps instead our livelihoods are behind us. What gives us life might already be present. We may have already gained that which animates our souls. All we need to do is slow down and look at what is right before our eyes.

The Torah concurs: “Man does not live on bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) This frequently quoted verse suggests that we are sustained by more than just food. And yet this is not what the Torah states. The verse reads in its entirety: “God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that human beings may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”

The Torah’s intention is clear. We are sustained by whatever God gives us. Manna might not be served at any five star restaurant (or any star restaurant for that matter) but we can live on it for the simple reason that it is a gift from God. The Torah implies that whatever God dishes out, we must take; we should take. Moreover we can live on it; we should live on it.

The Torah’s lesson is clear. Everything is a gift from God. And we should say, “Thank you.”

Still we require more than bread to live. We are sustained by so much more than the food we eat. We require purpose. We need friends and family to surround us. And yes, we even need hobbies.

This is why the rabbis of old counseled that we should never say the blessing for food while standing. Never say a blessing when rushing. Never eat, for example, while standing and waiting for a train. Instead we are instructed to sit. Why? Because when we sit down we transform the food our bodies require into a meal. It is the company of family and friends that changes eating into a meal. The necessity of food is transformed into a sacred occasion by blessings and others.

It is the people who surround us that nourishes us.

When you sit, it is impossible to rush. And then it is much easier to look behind you. It is much easier to give thanks.

Back to Rabbi Levi. Stop chasing after things. Look in the rearview mirror.

All the sustenance you require is sitting there before you.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Teaching Swimming

Twice a day we recite the familiar phrase of the Shema, “You shall diligently teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) What are we obligated to teach? The tradition provides us with specific answers. Parents must teach their children Torah and a craft. Some add, to teach them to swim too. (Kiddushin 29a)

The Talmud asks, why do parents need to ensure their children learn a craft. So that they might be self-sufficient and capable of earning a livelihood. Not to teach children a trade is akin to instructing them how to steal. And why swimming lessons? Because their lives might depend on it. (Kiddushin 30b) Swimming is a basic survival skill. Children who do not learn survival skills such as swimming and the practical skills of a craft can not succeed in any society – ancient or modern. The Talmud is very practical. Like today’s parents it wants to make children into successful, well-adjusted adults.

But the Talmud also wants to be sure these children become Jewish adults.

And this is why teaching Torah is the most important obligation a Jewish parent faces. This is also the most difficult challenge. Our culture values not Torah learning but the practical and survival skills of preparing for a career and saving lives. In fact we have allowed Torah learning to become only a practical skill. Children master Hebrew so that they might have a beautiful bar/bat-mitzvah. Learning Torah means practicing a Torah portion so that on that day the reading will be flawless and the performance masterful.

Yes, Torah is a skill but it is not a reading skill. Torah is a survival skill that also helps to shape success and happiness.

Ours is a generation that was taught only the skills of reading Torah and not an understanding of its beauty and meaning. The power of Torah is not hidden. Torah shapes moral human beings.

Now we are the parents. And we are noticeably uncomfortable and unsure of ourselves when God asks us to teach Torah to our children. If we don’t know, we can’t teach. Hillel responds: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” (Shabbat 31a)

The Talmud further advises: If parents must choose between educating their children or themselves, parents take precedence. (Kiddushin 29b) An analogy: If, in an emergency, the oxygen mask drops, first put on your mask and then your child’s. Why do airlines advise you to discount your instincts? The wisdom is simple: If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help your child. Instincts are not always right.

And so it is with Torah. Torah is a survival skill. If you don’t learn Torah your child won’t either. All the wonderful children’s programs will only work wonders if parents are there – in body and spirit – with their children.

Judaism’s magic is most felt at home. If there is no Torah at home, Torah will remain a reading skill that one masters by age 13 and then graduates from needing. Why do I need Torah, thinks the recent 13 year old, when my parents don’t?

Why do I love Torah? It is the same reason I love swimming. My parents took me swimming.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Language(s) of Torah

This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120 years old and must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Beforehand he reminds the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He recounts the adventures of their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…”

The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1)

The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.”

Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to explain the Torah in every language the rabbis believed to exist? It is because the Torah has universal import.

Too often we focus our Jewish learning on the mastery of the Hebrew language. Too often we mistake the Torah’s language for its essence. While Hebrew is of course important it does not always unlock the secrets; it cannot always unravel the mysteries. This is why even Moses taught the Torah in many languages.

The lesson is clear. The most important thing about Torah is its teachings. These must be translated into every language. Moreover these teachings must be interpreted according to everyone’s ability.

Torah was never meant to belong to a privileged few. It is meant for all. It is meant for the world.

It begins with the language we speak.

Monday, July 24, 2017

My Son's Graduation Viewed Through the Torah

For Jews, our most sacred object is the Torah scroll. Every synagogue has at least one. We stand when the scroll is taken from the Ark. We chant its verses at services. We study its words, week in and week out, poring over its stories and rules in search of meaning.

The scroll itself is made from large pieces of parchment that are sewn together so that there is barely a pause within the Bible’s first five books. For Jews, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are rolled into one. The Torah’s Hebrew lettering is written in highly stylized calligraphy that takes a scribe one year to complete. Even in today’s digital world, the Torah scroll continues to be crafted by hand.

One formula for the manufacture of the ink used to calligraphy the letters on this scroll requires that the nut, which a female gall wasp produces when she lays her eggs in an oak tree, be ground and cooked. Added to this mixture is the gum from an acacia tree and copper sulfate, which is then slowly cooked for approximately a year. The ink is most prized and a small bottle is very expensive.

Once the scribe calligraphs these black letters to the parchment, it will last for 1000 years. That is the black ink inscribed on a Torah scroll....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advice for Our Leaders

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders rather than the people as a whole. In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1) Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people?

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter. Here we read about the concept of making vows. The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks this very same question. He suggests the law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make—most especially if you are a leader.”

I would like to suggest a different reason.

Soon we will mark Tisha B’Av, the day in which we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. This fast day marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust. The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own demise. They more often than not suggest that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another. The seeds of our destruction were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other.

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate. They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another. We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue. What is a debate for the sake of heaven? The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument. It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree. The rabbis offer us an important insight. While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions. When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge? Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us?

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.

Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate. It rests in how leaders speak to one another.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Give the Keys Away

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches in particular are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And when I visited the church a few days ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently it is feared that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what were allowed to do and not to do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is the attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency.

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray. (And I found one such spot to offer the prayers requested of me.)

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so this summer I found myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently the situation I admired was not always the case. In the 12th century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that we should give up political sovereignty over Jerusalem. What I do mean to say is that spiritual truths are gained and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control, when don’t say so much, “I am in charge and you’re not. You can do this and you can’t do that.” If we are true to our faith we should say, “This house belongs to God alone.”

Doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sailing on Dreams

Today, I am grateful to have rediscovered a twofold blessing.

First of all I am thankful to my congregation and its leaders for recognizing that its rabbi must renew his learning and refresh his spirit every year. I do so by attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual rabbinic conference. I am here in Jerusalem. It is a blessing to learn with some of the Jewish people’s leading scholars and to sit among colleagues who share my commitment to learning and devotion to questioning.

It is as well a blessing to find myself again in the city of Jerusalem. I live in an unprecedented age. Despite this country’s many difficulties, challenges and frustrations few Jewish generations have been privileged to live in, or alongside, a sovereign Jewish nation. In some ways Israel is just a country, and like every other nation a home to its citizens. In other ways this place is about our reengagement with a dream.

For millennia we only dreamed about returning to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And now with relative ease I travel back and forth. Few generations have had such an opportunity. Through the vast majority of our history most longed for this place but few touched it. Until now! This is a privilege that must never be taken for granted.

Walking Jerusalem’s streets I become reacquainted with my blessings....

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Disagreements and Likes

There is a disturbing trend that is becoming ever more prevalent. It centers on disagreement. We have forgotten how to debate.

We surround ourselves with like-minded people. With the click of a mouse we can unfriend those with whom we disagree. We find it unwelcome to challenge ourselves with divergent opinions or when friends offer us critique. The measure of friendship today is twofold: loyalty and laudation. We only wish to hear the nodding of agreement.

Loving critique is banished from our screens. Honest disagreement is deleted from our inboxes.

Take but two recent examples. At last week’s LGBTQ pride parade in Chicago, several Jewish women who carried a rainbow colored flag with a Jewish star in its center were asked to leave. Why? Organizers told the women that the flag made people feel unsafe. The march is unabashedly anti-Zionist. The Jewish Star of David, they were told, is associated with the State of Israel. The official statement makes the Dyke March’s ideology even more clear: “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas.”

To say this is disturbing and offensive does not adequately characterize my feelings....

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soccer, Torah and Life

The Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, writes:
I love soccer because it is so painfully similar to life: slow, unjust, fairly random, usually boring, but always holding out the hope that, at some moment, however brief, everything will come together and take on meaning. There’s no getting away from it—life isn’t about limber athletes sinking hoops from the three-point arc; life is an ongoing, uncoordinated, anguished effort to transcend our trivial existence, an effort that, if we’re lucky, might lead to one brilliant move by Messi, Kaká, or some other dribbling magician. And then, for one split second, that whole damp 90-minute mishmash will turn into something coherent, beautiful, and worthwhile. And, when that moment and its endless playbacks fade, we will all return to our same drab reality of wasted time, pointless fouls, unreceived passes, and wild kicks that miss the goal by kilometers, only to wait with infinite patience and boundless hope for that next moment of grace.
I do not share Keret's observation that most of life is boring (or his talent for spinning humor out of the ordinary), but I do share the sentiment that life, like soccer, is punctuated with flashes of brilliance and grace when everything seems to work and everyone seems in sync.

Such is not the story in this week's Torah portion, Korah. Our portion is about the greatest rebellion against Moses and the authority God placed in him. In fact one can read much of the Torah, especially the Book of Numbers, as a record of how bad things can really go and how telling Keret's observation may be. Very little goes according to plan. God frees the people from Egypt, gives them the Torah and prepares them to entire the Promised Land. They in turn whine and complain. They gripe about Moses and his leadership.

Korah screams, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (Numbers 16: 3) In the end Korah's rebellion is violently crushed. God does not easily forgive those who question Moses' authority.

The Israelites move on to the next episode. Again they complain; this time about a lack of water. In this episode it is Moses who questions God's authority and is punished.

Where are the flashes of brilliance? Where are the models to emulate? My teacher used to quip, "There is no one in the Bible you would want your son or daughter to grow up to be like."

Then why read the Torah? If it is not to provide us with models to emulate and characters to which we aspire, why read it at all?

It is because the Torah mirrors life. It is filled with ordinary people who occasionally do extraordinary things and more often than not do embarrassing things. We can see ourselves in its characters. We can find ourselves in its pages. How often do we discover the soccer-like quality of present reality in the words of Torah?

There is a little bit of Korah in each of us. There is a measure of Moses in all.

Loving the Torah does not always mean imitating it. Loving the Torah and Bible does not mean saying, "It must be right if David did it. It must be true if Moses said it." Torah means instead learning and growing from its words.

There are times when you can appreciate Keret's observation. It was not so long ago that I stood on the sidelines watching my son slide to make a save or leap to knock the unexpected shot out of bounds. Most of the time it was spent kibbitzing with fellow parents, talking about schools, parenting, the news and weather. To be honest I sometimes had to be told about the slide or leap because the kibbitzing so distracted me. You have to remain attentive. You have to be patient. The moments do arrive.

The hours of driving and watching are redeemed by those brief moments of beauty and grace.

We travel from moment to moment, through ordinariness to such grandeur. We are sustained by the moments of illumination and brilliance. We pray that they might be more frequent. We recognize that they are elusive—and infrequent.

Such is life. Such is soccer. Such is Torah.