Monday, April 29, 2013

For Our Teachers and their Students

Tom Friedman writes:
And that’s why the faster, more accessible and ultramodern the Internet becomes, the more all the old-fashioned stuff matters: good judgment, respect for others who are different and basic values of right and wrong. Those you can’t download. They have to be uploaded, the old-fashioned way, by parents around the dinner table, by caring but demanding teachers at school and by responsible spiritual leaders in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. 
And our prayerbook reminds us:
When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it. The whole Torah exists only to establish peace. Its highest teaching is love and kindness. What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization. Honoring one another, doing acts of kindness, and making peace: these are our highest duties. But the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all. Let us learn in order to teach. Let us learn in order to do!
All the emails, blog posts, Facebook friends, Tweets, Instagram photos in the world cannot replace the good old-fashioned stuff of Torah and the hard work of its most important teachers, parents and grandparents.

"For our teachers and their students, and the students of the students, we ask for peace and lovingkindness, and let us say, Amen."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Leon Wieseltier on the Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre and Our Emotional Efficiency | The New Republic

Leon Wieseltier observes that we might be better served by some righteous indignation and anger rather than by the suggestion of far too many that we move on, rebuild and even put the Boston Marathon attack behind us.  He writes:
Vigilance, increased and intense, is not a victory for the terrorists. Mourning, and the time it takes, is not a victory for the terrorists. Reflection on all the meanings and the implications—on the fragility of our lives—on terrorism and theodicy—is not a victory for the terrorists. A less than wholly sunny and pragmatic view of the world is not a victory for the terrorists. What happened on Boylston Street was not a common event, but it was not a singular event. There is a scar. Taking terrorism seriously is not a victory for terrorism.
The cliches about rebuilding and standing taller are not always the best responses.  They are unhelpful when mourning the loss of a loved one.  Time does not in fact heal.  What time instead offers is how to keep on living despite the loss.  We learn how to live only with those imperfect memories.  We struggle to continue telling our father's or mother's story or as in this case, a child's.  But is that ever possible when the loss is outside the natural order and one discovers oneself mourning a child, ripped from one's arms by the anger of a terrorist?  Is anger really then a misplaced emotion?

Years later there still must be tears.  There is nothing wrong with that.  In fact crying is sometimes the best, and only, response, we have.  Jeremiah laments:

A cry is heard in Ramah—
Wailing, bitter weeping—
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted
For her children, who are gone. (Jeremiah 31:15)

When approaching this massacre continued tears may in fact lead to continued anger and perhaps even prevent us from moving on.  Is that wrong, Wieseltier reminds us.  We are angry that these two human hearts can be so twisted by hate that they would construct a kitchen made bomb whose only intention was to murder, and especially maim, as many people as possible.  Those tears should continue to burn in our hearts.  Anger can serve a noble purpose.

Being angry at the right things, and people, can serve to make us better--and perhaps even our world better--or at least safer.  The attempt to quickly repair the destruction and erase the anger can turn us away from the work that must be done.  Moving on may be incorrect.  Moving forward--and now in a new and different direction--is the only task.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


I just started reading Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  Here is the observation that informs his book: “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance.  In spiritual life it is the same: after the ecstasy comes the laundry.  Most spiritual accounts end with illumination or enlightenment.  But what if we ask what happens after that?”

It occurs to me that the Book of Leviticus is all about the laundry.  After the ecstasy detailed in Exodus, the liberation from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, we confront the details of how to lead a Jewish life.  “These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time…” (Leviticus 23:4)  What follows is a list of our major holidays.  It is an exhausting list of chores.

People often think that religion is about ecstasy.  It is about returning to Sinai.  It is instead about the laundry.  It is about order.  The Jewish prayerbook is called of course a siddur.  This name comes from the same Hebrew root as seder and means order.  Our prayers are not about ecstatic moments but instead about following a prescribed order. 

People pine after what today we might call a spiritual awakening.  They run after euphoria.  Everything must be inspiring.  All must produce an ecstatic high.  Perhaps this is one explanation as to why people commit adultery or experiment with drugs.  They want to rediscover that ecstatic moment they imagine once was.  They go to extraordinary, and sometimes even destructive, ends to recapture a mythic past.

Life is instead about the laundry, not the ecstasy.  Religion in general and Judaism in particular orders ecstasy.  It seeks to frame the ecstatic.  Why?  We cannot exist for too long in these ecstatic moments.  One need only look to the prophets for evidence of these inherent dangers.  We read their words for inspiration, chanting the Haftarah every Shabbat morning, but look away from their lives as models for our own.  They were intimate with God but distant from people, often painfully standing apart from their very own families.   The everyday stuff of life will not get done if we spend our days as if we were also ecstatic prophets.  The meals will never get cooked.

Too much ecstasy is a dangerous thing.  After the people experience God at Mount Sinai they cry to Moses, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.  ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20:15-16)  Too often people think that Sinai is our religious ideal.  The ecstatic is the religious goal.  Instead it is the Shabbat table.

There we find order.  We discover joy.

Leviticus gives us the holidays.  It offers us brief days of ordered illumination, rejoicing and celebration, punctuating the year.  Leviticus introduces us to the laws of kashrut.  These are at their best moments of religious awareness discovered at each and every meal.  We discover these not on some lofty mountaintop but instead in our homes, at our tables, in our kitchens.

Religiosity is found doing the laundry.  Piety can be discovered in everyday chores.

Recently I was kibitzing with our students as they enjoyed their pizza before the start of class.  I am not sure how the discussion started, but I found myself talking to them about taking responsibility for their own actions and doing things for themselves.  That is of course the underlying meaning of the bar/bat mitzvah celebration.  So I told them that they should learn to do their own laundry.  They stared at me as if I was from outer space, then laughed and looked knowingly to each other affirming that it was I who really did not understand the ways of the world.

Still I stubbornly believe.  I continue to teach that life is not only about what is fun and enjoyable.  It is not all Sinai.  It may be as simple as if you cannot fold your own clothes how can you order a life of meaning?  The exhausting details of the Book of Leviticus are actually where life is lived.  Exodus inspires.  It can provide meaning.  But it is the chores of Leviticus where we live.

That one moment of ecstasy must often last a lifetime.  The remainder is doing the laundry. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

The Israeli author David Grossman writes in his recent collection of essays, Writing in the Dark, of his worries that Israel is letting go of its dream for peace, that decades of war have eroded its most cherished vision.  He writes:
If we ever achieve a state in which we have no enemies, perhaps we will be able to break free from the all-too-familiar Israeli tendency to approach reality with the mind-set of a sworn survivor, who is practically programmed—condemned—to define the situations he encounters primarily in terms of threat, danger, and entrapment, or daring rescue from all these….  The survivor thereby all but dooms himself to exist forever within this partial, distorted, suspicious, and frightened picture of reality, and is therefore tragically fated to make his anxieties and nightmares come true time and time again.
The most insidious danger of terrorism is that it erodes our dreams.  In its randomness it can never kill millions of people, but it can destroy a million souls.  It can prevent us from doing the ordinary things of life, a morning jog, catching a flight to see relatives, frequenting the movie theatre or a favorite outdoor cafĂ©.

One of the most remarkable things about our tradition is that it was magnified under duress.  While the Romans oppressed us we authored the Mishnah, while the Crusaders persecuted us we penned some of our most remarkable prayers and while the Arab armies attacked us we built a vibrant Jewish democracy.  We fought to maintain our most cherished beliefs and values despite the fact that we were attacked or tortured, persecuted or terrorized.

In this week’s Torah portion we are given a number of ethical mandates.  Only three times does the Torah command us to love.  In the Shema, appearing in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to love God.  The other two mitzvot appear this week.  Here in the Book of Leviticus we are commanded to love the neighbor and love the stranger.  “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”  (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here, in the Torah, we discover a people who recently escaped from 400 years of slavery.  It would have been understandable had they codified a law that said, “Never allow yourselves to become victimized or enslaved.”  Instead the Torah says that because we had such intimate knowledge of suffering we must be on guard never to allow others to be cast aside as other. 

In our new reality, where tests of endurance become instead testimonies to survival, many will be labeled stranger.  Foreigners will be pointed.  Others will be blamed.  In fact, only a small few are guilty.  In this country stranger and citizen are one.  And that belief is our best response to terror.  No one is ever cast outside.  That is the vision we must protect.

Since Monday’s bombing I have received a number of emails about security briefings.  I am certain that soon we will see new security protocols for marathons.  We might even see restrictions placed on the purchase of pressure cookers, as we have to come know the all too familiar removing of our shoes following the shoe bomber.  Some of these changes will be welcome.  Others not.  Some might provide a brief measure of comfort.  Others will soon become an annoyance.  No amount of additional security measures will prevent all future terrorist attacks.

There is only one response.  That is to focus on our values and beliefs.  Our answer is to forever hold on to our visions and dreams.

At morning services we sing a prayer authored millennia ago, and penned amidst the pains of sufferings and destructions.
Grant peace, goodness, and blessing to the world; grace, kindness, and mercy to us and to all Your people Israel.  Bless us all, O our Creator, with the Divine light of Your presence.  For by that Divine light You have revealed to us Your life-giving Torah, and taught us lovingkindness, righteousness, mercy and peace.  May it please You to bless Your people Israel, in every season and at every hour, with Your peace.  Praised are You, O Lord, Bestower of peace upon Your people Israel.
Such is the Sim Shalom prayer that we sing each and every morning, in each and every generation.  We began praying this prayer when peace was but a distant hope.  We sang its words not only to reach upward begging God for peace but also to reach inward so that our souls would never be hardened by the violence and terror our bodies experienced.

I believe it is possible to be vigilant about life while holding on to the dreams that nurture our souls.  In truth, we must come to recognize that we can never fully protect ourselves.   We can however guard our souls.  We can preserve our values.  I will not have it any other way.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon

Our hearts our joined in sorrow and outrage with our neighbors and friends of Boston.  Again an American city has been struck by terror.  We pray that those injured may find healing and the families of those murdered will find a measure of consolation.

As in Israel, the joy and celebration of today’s Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, is tempered by yesterday’s Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day.  My rejoicing is diminished.  And so I turn to Israel’s poetry.  I find myself once again pulled toward Yehuda Amichai’s poems. 

What follows is the poem Amichai read at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony when Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasir Arafat were awarded the 1994 prize and although that peace agreement is fractured I continue to cling to its dream. The poem seemed fitting for the hope of that occasion.  It gains poignancy with each passing year.  The urgent dream of peace is renewed with even greater force after yesterday. 

Not the peace of a cease-fire
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
like wildflowers,  
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Peace remains my prayer—for Israel, for America, for the world.  I vow.  I will never allow terrorism to diminish my choices.  I will not allow it to destroy my dreams.  May our children, and our children’s children be granted a world free from terror.  And may peace come soon—because we must have it.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Yom Haatzmaut & Tazria-Metzora

Today, five women were arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  Why?  They were praying at their monthly Rosh Hodesh service and were arrested for wearing tallism and singing out loud.  In a ground breaking decision the judge dismissed the charges and the request of the ultra Orthodox rabbis who control the Kotel that the women be barred from praying at the Wall for the next three monthly services.  The judge stated that the women are not in fact disturbing the public order with their praying.  Instead she argued that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayers.

In Israel today there is a struggle over the control of Judaism’s holiest site.  At the Wall the prayer area is divided between a men’s section and a women’s.  Over the years the women’s section has grown increasingly smaller.  For the past twenty five years Women of theWall has gathered on the first of the Hebrew month to offer prayers at the Kotel.  They are often arrested and frequently harassed.  Their argument is mine.  All Jews should be allowed to pray as they see wish at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Temple, the place that has served as a source inspiration for countless generations.    

This week’s Torah portion begins with a discussion about childbirth and concludes with leprosy.  (When I was in rabbinical school I never imagined discussing such topics with 13 year old boys and girls!)  The ancients were terrified of blood, as well as diseases about which they understood little, and therefore prescribed rituals to overcome what they believed to be their defiling nature.  Curiously after giving birth, a woman had to wait two weeks before performing these rituals if it was a girl rather than one for a boy.  After my students overcome their disgust with the Torah’s details and their embarrassment talking about these matters with their rabbi, they often object to this discrepancy.  Both boys and girls ask, “Why do you have to wait two weeks for a girl and only one week for a boy?  That is not fair!”

Although Yom Haatzmaut is a day deserving of great celebration, I would like to dwell on this continuing discrepancy.   I agree with my students’ evaluation.  Unfortunately the Torah’s ancient perspective still holds sway over many Jews’ hearts and minds.  I appreciate the opinion of Jewish tradition that men and women are given different obligations.  Men are obligated to pray; women are not, the tradition reasons.   Furthermore a woman’s singing might distract a man from his prayer obligations.  Such are not my beliefs.  If a man finds himself distracted then he should look within rather than out.  He alone is responsible.  Each of us is responsible for our own actions. Yet my commitment to pluralism must allow for other Jewish beliefs to coexist with my own. 

In fact, Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jewish dissident, recently proposed the building of a third prayer area at the Kotel.  There egalitarian praying would be permitted.  There men and women could join in prayer together.  I would welcome such a change.  For too long the ultra Orthodox perspective has been allowed to define the customs and traditions of the Wall.  For too long the Wall has divided the Jewish people rather than uniting.  My dream for this place is that at the Kotel we can become again one Jewish people, while holding on to different Jewish traditions.

What is lacking in the modern State of Israel is this commitment to Jewish pluralism.  This is something that American Jewry can offer to our Israeli friends.  It is desperately required.  We should not be shy about advocating this teaching to the state we so dearly love.  Otherwise the Jewish state will also become a source of division rather than unity. 

There is much to celebrate about the modern State of Israel.  We have returned to our ancient land, resuscitated an unspoken language and restored the Jewish people to being masters of their own fate. Despite enemies who continue to attack the State of Israel, the Jewish nation thrives and prospers.  Still there is much to be done. 

I remain hopeful.  If we can do this much in the span of three generations, then I have faith that we can also one day soon restore to the Jewish state a desperately needed commitment to pluralism.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Synagogue

What follows are my remarks from our congregation's annual fundraiser and some tentative thoughts about the meaning of the synagogue for our new age.

...Many of us attend countless charity events throughout the year, especially during these Spring months.  We are often beseeched to support these worthy charities with dire warnings.  Our gifts are equated with saving lives.  Our monies go to important research that could in fact save someone from cancer or protect an Israeli city from Hamas rockets.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I am not at all suggesting that these charities are unimportant.  They do extraordinarily important work.  For those of us privileged enough to have attended the recent AIPAC conference we came to understand this significant work.

Yet more often than not these charities appeal to our fears and worries.  They ask for our donations in terms of life and death.  The synagogue cannot appeal to such sentiments.  It was once, in the not too distant past that we could ask for donations to a synagogue by saying “The Jewish people will die without the synagogue.   Give for our survival.  Give so that we can guarantee your grandchildren will be Jewish.”

Despite the fact that I continue to believe in this mantra, that the synagogue is the only institution that can best guarantee Jewish survival, I recognize that such appeals no longer work.  We must appeal to something else and perhaps even more significant, for survival must be wedded to meaning.  In our world most, if not all, believe that you can live without the synagogue.  You can even have a bar/bat mitzvah without a synagogue, not a good one of course, but the valued ceremony nonetheless.  I remain perplexed by the belief of far too many that one can become a bar/bat mitzvah in the absence of community.  Yet we recognize that such is the sentiment of our age.

And that is why I remain even more grateful for your support this evening.  It is more that just I am really happy to see you.  It is because your attendance lends meaning to our synagogue.  It is where we can best find community.  It is where anyone can be welcomed regardless of station or circumstance, means or knowledge, commitment or understanding. 

Thus the only argument that might work for our institution is that here one can find meaning and community.  In an age when a group of people can be standing together but each texting someone else on their cell phones, we need community more than ever.

Here we can find a circle of community. Here we might become better, our children might become the menschen we dare to dream they can be.  Here we can learn to love our Jewish traditions and become attached to the Jewish people.  Here our children might come to love Jewish life.  Here, at the JCB, we can rediscover the joy of Jewish living.  Those arguments can perhaps become the compelling arguments for our age and in them we can discover our new trope.

So tonight I thank you for helping to affirm that the synagogue is vital and that our JCB community unique.  May we go from strength to strength, m’chayil l’chayil.     

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Yom HaShoah & Shemini

Decades ago the olah, the burnt offering sacrifice, described in this week’s portion, was translated as the holocaust offering. For obvious reasons this translation is no longer used.   The olah offering was entirely consumed by fire on the sacrificial altar.  The Hebrew is derived from the word “to go up” because the sacrifice’s smoke ascended to heaven.  The ancients believed that such sacrifices kept the world finely balanced.  

The Holocaust is referred to by the Hebrew term Shoah.   This is usually translated as “catastrophe or ruin.”  Unlike the biblical reference that refers to a sacrifice we offer, the term Shoah suggests the destruction it indeed was.  It is a term however that appears infrequently in the Bible, but fittingly is found in the Book of Job. 

There, the word appears in one of Job’s laments.  “Of what use to me is the strength of their hands?  All their vigor is gone. Wasted from and want and starvation, they flee to a parched land, to the gloom of desolate wasteland.” (Job 30:2-3)  Raymond Scheindlin in his landmark translation of Job renders this verse as: “…in dearth and famine, barren, fleeing to wilderness, a horror-night of ruin.”

This captures the import of the catastrophic events of 1933-1945.  It was indeed a “horror-night of ruin.”  In addition the lamenting of the biblical hero of Job is far more fitting of our understanding of these events.   The biblical book concludes with Job’s question of “Why me?” unanswered.  God does respond to our hero, but offers little by way of explanation.  Job discovers little justification for the suffering he endures.  The Holocaust leaves us as well with these unanswered questions.

Recently Rabbi Herschel Schacter died.  He was one of the first Jewish chaplains, serving with US armed forces, to enter the concentration camp of Buchenwald.  According to The New York Times obituary (March 26, 2013), he ran from barracks to barracks shouting, “Jews, you are free!”  He also met a seven year old boy there. 

The Times describes the encounter: “With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. ‘What’s your name, my child?’ he asked in Yiddish.  ‘Lulek,’ the child replied.  ‘How old are you?’ the rabbi asked.  ‘What difference does it make?  I’m older than you, anyway.’  ‘Why do you think you’re older?’ Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.  ‘Because you cry and laugh like a child,’ Lulek replied.   ‘I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?’”

When a child loses the innocence and joy of childhood our world has been upended, when he teaches a rabbi the import of suffering, we might lose faith.

The holocaust offering described in the Book of Leviticus suggests a world where good and evil, reward and punishment are perfectly balanced, in a neat and tidy fashion.  Offer a sacrifice.  God will respond.  Such is not the world that emerged from the Shoah.  It was a catastrophe that we struggle still to understand—and even name.

The child survived the war.  He is now Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.