Friday, February 26, 2010
This week my favorite Hebrew School teacher, Ida Stack, died. And last month the rabbi who officiated at my wedding, Murray Saltzman, also died. This post is for them. Rabbi Saltzman was not my rabbi growing up. He was Susie's. I still remember sitting in his office preparing for our wedding day. I still remember standing on the bima of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi Saltzman exclaiming in his deep, resonate voice, "Susie and Steve, as you stand together on this day, may you stand together throughout the vicissitudes of life." To be fair I was too focused on Susie ("Hmm, she looks so beautiful") to remember his exact words but I can still hear him saying, "vicissitudes." And I remember thinking, "Can we not talk about vicissitudes now... can we get married already and get to the dancing." There have of course been a lot of twists and turns since then. But some twenty years later his words have gained more truth. Most of all I thank him for beginning our life together with his blessing. Ida Stack was on the other hand a part of my childhood. I learned the alef-bet from her. She was that rare teacher that no matter how much a student misbehaved (not me of course) she still smiled and continued to share her love of Hebrew. This is not to say that she was a push over. It is instead to say that she loved what she taught and if you were lucky enough to be a student in her class you felt it. I can still feel her hand on my cheek and her saying, "Well done Steven." Again maybe she did not say, "well done" too often but I can still hear my name on her lips. My memories are most certainly imperfect, but I remember my teachers. I thank them for their teachings, for telling a young groom that there will be many unforeseen twists and turns, some great and some challenging, and for demonstrating by a smile to never be afraid of sharing your love of even something as small as a Hebrew letter. Let the tradition speak for me. Let the Rabbi's Kaddish exclaim: "Grant lasting peace, O God, to our people and their leaders, to our teachers and their disciples, and to all who engage in the study of Torah in this land and in all other lands" Amen. May their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Below is a brief video about Purim. It is only a partial retelling of the story. It certainly does not fulfill the mitzvah of reading the megillah, but it may make you laugh. And this is the most important part of Purim. It is the one day when we are commanded to not take ourselves so seriously. When you think about the fact that we are laughing and making fun at the most serious of subjects, namely antisemitism and Haman's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, it should give you pause. Instead we make noise, put on costumes, drink too much and celebrate with wild abandon. Laughter really is the best medicine. Enjoy!
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Here is a slideshow about the the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti and the American Jewish World Service's extraordinary work there. It remains heart wrenching that some 230,000 people died in one small country, most in a single city. Haiti's population is nearly 10 million. Even before last month's disaster over 80% of the population lived below the poverty line. There is much work that remains to be done there and much suffering to alleviate. As a Jew I strive to respond to suffering everywhere. The AJWS is a worthy organization to help us begin such efforts.
Haiti: Hope and Healing in the Aftermath of Disaster
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
I just returned from Baltimore, visiting potential colleges with my daughter (more about that another time I am sure). The city was still covered by nearly four feet of snow. There were literally mountains of snow everywhere. Cars were still buried and the sidewalks not yet plowed. All of this snow has led some to argue that the science of global warming is incorrect. If the earth is heating up how can there be more snow suggest some friends and politicians. Tom Friedman weighed in on this issue, again, in today's Times. I am not a scientist, so I evaluate things differently. Nonetheless I find the science convincing because I find the logic indisputable. Here is my logic. Human beings produce a lot of garbage and waste. We produce more today than we did years ago. I try my best to be environmentally conscious, but my efforts feel lacking. My wife and I probably drive about 400 miles per week. Nearly every room has a surge suppressor because there are so many electronics running or charging. Everyone has a computer, cell phone and iPod. None of these things are necessities of course, but my kids would have difficulty expressing this sentiment because they are so much a part of the computer age. I still remember talking to my friends on the house phone so living without a cell phone seems plausible and even welcome. Turning the cell off remains one of the only joys left of flying today. We are not a particularly wasteful family, but we do use a lot of juice, in particular electricity, gas--and even oil to heat the house. Even though our cars and appliances are far more efficient than those I grew up with, logic suggests that we are using more than when I was a teenager. Even if my family is using the same amount of energy as in the "ancient days of the 70's and 80's," the world's population is far larger. The US population has increased by about 75 million since then. That would seem like a lot more juice and a lot more waste. The notion that human beings can go about doing whatever they want and whatever they like and not worry about the consequences to our earth is illogical. The idea that we are not having any negative impact on our world appears to me wrong-headed. I don't know about the ocean levels rising, the polar ice cap melting, more droughts and fires in the west and more snowstorms and hurricanes in the east, but I do know that we are changing our world. To suggest otherwise seems illogical. We could argue about the forecasts, but we do better to band together and lessen our impact on the world. There is no place to go if we ruin our only home. As a Jew I am commanded to care for my world. We are its custodians. So the question should not be what more can I keep doing, but what must I change. The even more important questions are: what must we change? How can we change--today? How can we better care for our world?
Thursday, February 11, 2010
What is it about the snow that seems so serene when in fact it is a ferocious assault on modernity and our modern conveniences. Is it because the snow appears as a soft blanket? Or perhaps that it is a pure white--until the salt and sand, dirt and grime of modernity darkens it? For better words, I turn to one of the greats, Emily Dickinson (#942).
Snow beneath whose chilly softness
Some that never lay
Make their first Repose this Winter
I admonish Thee
Blanket Wealthier the Neighbor
We so new bestow
Than thine acclimated Creature
Wilt Thou, Austere Snow?
Despite all of our efforts, nature always has the last word, and of course the best. The cool winter air, swirling for a day with snowflake upon snowflake, and now with white clumps falling from the trees, should instead of being an inconvenience, be a source of delight. We can do without our cars and computers for a few days. Let the bright, white snow be a calming blanket. Take in its serenity.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Below is a picture of the group of rabbis who are a part of my cohort in the Shalom Hartman Institute's Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. In the three years we have studied together this group of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist rabbis have not only learned a great deal from the Institute's scholars but also and perhaps more from each other. Most important of all we have become the closest of friends.
Where else but at Jerusalem's Machon Hartman and because of the vision of Rabbis David and Donniel Hartman would such a diverse group of rabbis have assembled together. What first drew us to the program was our passion for Israel, love of Torah study and the opportunity to study with the leading Jewish minds of our day. What continues to draw us to the Machon are our bonds to each other.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Yesterday we studied with one of the emerging stars among Jewish scholars, Dr. Micah Goodman. In addition to his extraordinary mastery of traditional and philosophical texts, he hosts a weekly TV show on Jewish values and directs an institute (located in Ein Prat) where secular and religious Israelis study together. It is a joy to study with him. I hope we can one day welcome him to our adult education program. We studied with him the biblical books of Ezra and Ruth. These two books represent radically different approaches to Jewish identity. Ezra claims that Jewishness is defined by birth and by a "holy seed." Ezra angrily banishes the foreign wives of Israelites when he returns to the land of Israel from Babylon in the fifth century BCE. He outlaws intermarriage and even more importantly institutes the public reading of the Torah, a ritual we still perform 2,500 years later. Ruth on the other hand opens the doors to Jewishness wide. Ruth converts to Judaism because of her commitment to her mother in law, and by reciting but a few words. "Your God shall be my God and your people my people..." Ruth was a Moabite, one of Israel's sworn enemies and about whom Deuteronomy absolutely forbids positive relations. At the end of the book that bears her name we learn that King David and therefore the messiah descends from her line. What is most interesting about these two books is that they are both part of the same sacred book, namely the Bible. Our Bible canonized a disagreement that continues to this day. Our Bible's first opinion is to advocate a pluralism of ideas and to leave the disagreement undecided. What makes one a Jew remains a complicated question. I remain grateful that the Bible raises more questions than it answers.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Rabbi David Hartman created the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am now studying. He is a remarkable rabbi. It is an honor and privilege to study with him. On Shabbat afternoon we studied a selection from Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. We have studied many selections from Maimonides here at the Institute. It is remarkable that a book written 800 years ago still holds sway over our hearts, but more importantly it is extraordinary how it holds sway over our minds and instructs us how to live as Jews and moderns. We had two classes with David Hartman on, surprisingly enough not Talmud but, Erich Fromm. Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving: "If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life." Hartman models for many of us such a life, a life committed to the Jewish world and modern world. He is unafraid of questions. He is unafraid of struggle, and therefore no stranger to controversy. What is most remarkable is that I have found him to be loving and caring when addressing people and especially us, his students, yet tenacious and unforgiving when struggling with our texts. I leave you with one of his teachings. He taught us that the anchor of our lives is to squeeze joy out of what is available to us. This teaching is but one example of why he is my rabbi. This idea also embodies what is so life affirming about modern Israel. Joy is never handed to you. It is something that requires great effort. It often requires wringing it out of everyday matter and ordinary stuff.
Monday, February 1, 2010
At present I am studying at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute. We have had many classes, lectures, discussions and a few moments to enjoy Jerusalem. More about the classes and learning in another post, and perhaps some thoughts about my wanderings through this city's streets another time. For now one impression. Nothing has seemingly changed since I was last here in July. I often marvel that the news from afar about the place in which I now sit seems always more depressing when there than here. Israel appears on the edge of crisis, facing missiles and enemies within and without, yet when here little seems amiss. With the exception of the disastrous construction project, building a rail line cutting through the center of town on Jaffa Street very little seems to have changed in six months. I am not one to dismiss Israel's struggles in a cavalier manner, but when here in Jerusalem they seem less pressing than when there on Long Island. Perhaps it is only my heart that is so at ease. I feel at home in Jerusalem. I would like to believe that all would feel similarly if they were here visiting Israel as well.