Friday, December 17, 2010

Saying What You Mean, and Meaning What You Say

I don't know if you caught this item in the news this week...but it seems that the Nixon Presidential Library and the National Archives declassified another batch of transcripts from Nixon's infamous Oval Office taping system.  The New York Times reported it in this story.

Initially, the media's focus on this week's release was on Nixon and his already well-documented use of ethnic stereotypes and slurs (including evidence of anti-Semitism).

But many leaders in the Jewish community have been focused, instead, on a quote that is almost buried in the aforementioned New York Times story about the tape release.  That article notes that:
An indication of Nixon’s complex relationship with Jews came the afternoon Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, came to visit on March 1, 1973. The tapes capture Meir offering warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.

But moments after she left, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were brutally dismissive in response to requests that the United States press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”
Wait a second....did Kissinger - the Jewish Secretary of State and Holocaust escapee - just go on the record as indicating that he wouldn't care if the USSR sought to kill Soviet Jews in an act of genocide?

What in the world are we supposed to make of that statement?

It certainly doesn't add up.  Kissinger has long been honored by American Jewish organizations for formulating the Nixon Administration's pro-Israel stance (connected, for example, with the 1973 Yom Kippur War) to insure Israel's survival.

How do we reconcile Kissinger's well-respected and well-earned reputation with these disgusting comments?

Abraham Foxman, who leads the Anti-Defamation League, has gone on the record by defending Kissinger.  Foxman's piece is well worth reading.  He basically makes two important points about the Nixon Administration: (1) for sure many, including Nixon, were anti-Semitic and bigoted.  But they were also fixated on a realpolitik approach to foreign affairs - and, through that lens - they believed that the US had a significant responsibility to defend Israel (because it was in America's national security interests).  Foxman goes on to argue that (2) given the rampant anti-Semitism that we know to have existed in the Nixon White House, it is not realistic for us to expect that Kissinger would be free to entirely express his own views on Jewish-related issues.  Foxman believes that Kissinger - like some of us (?) - found his workplace to be hostile to Jews, and did whatever he had to do to not bring further attention upon himself and his Jewishness.  That could explain the almost anti-Jewish attitude that is reflected in the quote above.

This story isn't just important because of the historical and political questions that it raises.  The story is also relevant because it raises a basic ethical question: IS IT WRONG TO SAY/THINK ONE THING, BUT ULTIMATELY DO ANOTHER?

Consider the question for a moment.

Pure and simple hypocrisy is always easy to identify.  That would be if someone comes along and says that they love Jews.  And then a few days later: that individual enacts a policy at his business which prevents Jews from being hired.

We would all agree that that kind of (oversimplified!) two facedness is clearly wrong - a violation of our Jewish and secular ethical standards.

But the Kissinger story is an inversion of that example: where the speaker says terrible things about someone/something else, but his actions are actually a fine example of 'doing the right thing'!  Is that also hypocrisy, or is it justified?

What about in our own lives?

Can you think of situations where you were with other people and you felt pressure to 'talk the talk' with them, by using the kinds of language that others were using, or offensive terms (or jokes) that others were using/making?  And what does it mean to do that when you know - deep down - that those things are wrong and violate your own personal system of ethics?  Do you justify it by saying to yourself that they're just words....but that your actions represent the real you - the person who would never actually objectify a woman, or harass someone who was gay (to draw on two male stereotypes here)?

I think that there are competing Jewish values at play here, which makes this situation so difficult to navigate.

On the one hand, Judaism absolutely believes that our words are powerful: that they have the ability to hurt people, deeply - just as they have the ability to heal and help.  What we say matters, no matter what the circumstance.

And on the other hand, Judaism is certainly realistic.  There are times when it is okay to lie/be hypocritical a little, when it comes to preserving either our own lives, or the feelings of others. question to you: WHAT DO YOU THINK?  Is Kissinger two-faced, or is he just a complicated person like so many of us?  Is it wrong when we do the same kind of thing that he did - by saying one thing, but doing another?

As always, I'd love to hear what you think.  Join the conversation by posting a comment in the box below.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Dignity of Difference


Well...Hanukkah has come and gone, which means that Christmas is right around the corner.

I imagine that we all navigate through the month of December differently.  For those of us who grew up in a home with a non-Jewish parent - or for those who are currently in a relationship with a non-Jewish partner, then Christmas is/was perhaps an annual family tradition - either in your home, or in the home of your grandparents (or other family members).  Or maybe you have a close friend who celebrates Christmas, and you're often invited to join them as they mark their holiday season.

Maybe you just enjoy this season - because of the lovely lights, the stirring music, and the message of peace and hope that surrounds us.

Or: maybe you're like me, and you have a hard time getting through the month of December.  Not because of the stresses of shopping (see last week's posting!), or family...but because of the existential angst that I experience every year around this time.

(Okay: let's be honest.  I'm a recovering neurotic East Coast Jew.  I've got existential angst about pretty much everything, not just being a Jew around Christmas!)

Be that as it may, my honest confession is that I struggle with my own Jewishness during this time of year - because this is the one time of the year when I really feel different from the rest of the community that I live in. 

And since no one likes to stick out like a "sore thumb" (at least I don't), I've typically seen this angst as a bad thing...something I wish I could get rid of.

Well...the good news for me, and anyone else out there who struggles with this as that this week's Torah portion (Parshat Vayigash) addresses this existential dilemma.

The portion presents us with the epilogue of the Joseph narrative.  He formally reconciles with his brothers, and they immediately make plans to bring their father Jacob and the rest of the clan from Israel to Egypt to weather the rest of the famine.

In our portion, Joseph gives his brothers VERY PARTICULAR instructions about what they should say to Pharaoh, upon arriving in Egypt (see Gen. 46:31-34).  He tells them that they should identify themselves as shepherds, knowing that Egyptians object to the practice.  Joseph correctly predicts that the Egyptians will want to make sure that Joseph's family lives separately - outside of any Egyptian settlement.  And so it is that the family is "sequestered" in Goshen - the Jewish designated ghetto of Egypt (so to speak).


Chiddushei HaRim (a 19th century Chasidic source) remarks that Joseph was "establishing a pattern for his successors to follow in every generation: […] Neither emulate their [non-Jews’] ways nor mingle with them socially.  […] Knowing that the animal-worshipping Egyptians detested shepherds, Joseph had them introduce themselves as herdsmen.  Thus, Pharaoh would shun them and let them settle in the relative isolation of Goshen" (cited in Artscroll Chumash).

Our tradition validates Joseph's inclination to keep his family separate from the Egyptians.  He is, in effect, role-modelling a certain kind of behavior for all future Jewish communities: that it's safer if we never mixed with those who were different from us.

Now - to be sure - there is something problematic and offensive (to us) about the way that Chiddushei HaRim frames its comments.  Don't mix with them socially?!  Except for the ultra-Orthodox, all Jews have basically let that one fall by the wayside over the last 200 years.  Diversity is something that Western society celebrates today.  There is value in having friends and neighbors that are different from us.

But what are the limits to this approach?

The image of the melting pot (shameless plug for one of my favorite restaurants) is useful here.  We often cite the melting pot as an example of America's greatness.  That America's magic is derived, in part, from the unique blend of populations who have come here to call this land home.  The cultures of those populations have been mixed together here...and voila!  Presenting: American-ness.

But if you think carefully about the cooking metaphor, you will realize that individual ingredients typically "disappear" into a recipe.  To be sure, they contribute a unique taste or consistency.  But - when the cooking is over and the food is ready to be eaten, most of the individual ingredients are no longer in tact.  They have been absorbed into the larger dish.

That is the danger of assimilating.  If we strive to be more like the larger whole, we run the risk of losing ourselves - the essence of what makes us special, or unique.

And so it is with this December season.  The social pressure to "fit in" and "do Christmas" so that we can look more like our neighbors - and, indeed, be more like our neighbors - is all well and good, until our Jewishness: the undefined essence of who we are as a people, religion, culture, ethnicity, etc....begins to disappear.

For me, the message that being different is OKAY...that it is, indeed, necessary to be different in order to maintain the Jewish tradition is somehow comforting.  It gives me the strength and courage to wish others a Merry Christmas, or Happy Holiday, without wishing that it was my holiday as well.


Let me end by recommending an incredible book: The Dignity of Difference by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  In it, he writes that: "Universalism must be balanced with a new respect for the local, the particular, the unique.  There are indeed moral universals [...] but they exist to create space for cultural and religious difference: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, and the freedom we need to be true to ourselves while being a blessing to others.  I will argue that the proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God, therefore one faith, one truth, one way.   To the contrary: it is that unity creates diversity.  The glory of the created world is its astounding multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the hundreds of faiths, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of God telling us something we need to know.  That is what I mean by the dignity of difference."

For Sacks, that is a long way of expressing the value that comes from minimizing assimilation and the melting pot phenomenon.  For him (and for me), the more diverse our world remains - the more different we are from one another, than the more possibility there is that we can learn from each other...not by imitating the rituals and practices of those who are different from us, but by respectfully learning about them, and experiencing them as honored guests.

I'm interested in hearing how you navigate December.  Is it easy or hard?  Why?  I hope you'll consider posting your comments publicly (just click here) so that others can join in our conversation.

Wishing you a very meaningful rest of December,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 3, 2010

HANUKKAH 2010: Gifts, Gifts, Gifts

Thanks to the accident of the Jewish calendar, and the situating of Hanukkah during the winter holiday season, we cannot help but observe that the commercialization of Christmas is now (and has been for some time) the central part of our holiday as well.

We marginalize any remembrance of miracles and history.  Even the ethnic/culinary aspects of Hanukkah are overshadowed.  One wonders if American Jews would even light the menorah as much as they do if the giving of gifts wasn't so strongly associated with the ritual.

Now...before you start calling me Scrooge...let me go on the record as saying that I don't have any objection per se to the giving of gifts during Hanukkah.  Who doesn't like to give/receive stuff?  (God knows that our economy would benefit from more gift giving too.)

But even as we exchange gifts with family and friends this year, I would encourage you to consider that there is more than one way to understand the word 'gift.'

As we typically think of the term, a gift is something that is given...a commodified object that someone had to buy, or make.  That gift requires money, and/or time and energy to produce it, and for us to convey it to the person that we are giving it to.  The investment that we make in the gifts that we give has value: that's the reason why it's so critical that we say thank you for what we receive: because whoever gave it to us invested a part of themselves to help make that gift happen.  We should acknowledge that.

There's also a second kind of gift...Here, I think of the term 'gift' as being synonymous with the notion of 'blessing.'  There are things that we have been gifted - that we have been blessed to receive.  And I'm not talking about the latest video game system.  I'm thinking about our health, the abundance of food that most of us (but not all of us) have access to, and the gift of relationships that we enjoy (with friends, significant others, family). 

Now: where you think these gifts came from is a personal matter.  Perhaps you are inclined to give credit to God.  Others invoke the power of Fate or Mother Nature.   The point is that, this week - during Hanukkah, our job is to become a little more humble, and acknowledge that there are forces at play in the universe that can impact us....that we're not always as in control of our lives and our destiny as we would like to think we are.

Hopefully, from that place of humility, we can be moved to a place of gratitude: to a sense of thanksgiving for the gifts that permeate our that we know could be taken from us in an instant.

Imagine how different our country would be if Americans everywhere somehow came to embrace this message.  If, as a society, we were to come to realize that the only gifts that really mattered were the intangible ones: our health, and our sense of security - our sense of rootedness to, and in, the world.  Imagine how different our relationships with one another would be - especially during this time of year.  We would be relieved of the stress of having to find the "perfect" gifts for the people on our lists, and we'd be relieved of the obligation to fake our surprise/joy when someone gives us a gift that wasn't necessarily on the top (or even middle) of our lists.  And instead, our only responsibility would be to ourselves: to foster a sense of gratitude for the things that truly matter in our lives, things that aren't sold online or at the mall. 

Wouldn't that be a miracle worth celebrating?

Wishing you and your's a Happy Hanukkah.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Only in America


This week's Torah portion - Parshat Toldot - continues the narrative of our ancestors' origins.  Isaac and Rebekah welcome twins: Jacob and Esau.

The Torah goes out of its way to indicate that Rebekah's pregnancy wasn't an easy one: "But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, "If so, why do I exist?"" (Gen. 25:22).  You can almost feel Rebekah's  existential anguish.  She is convinced that her (unborn) children won't get along at all.

Our rabbis pick up on this anxiety and - following the Torah itself - the Midrash establishes the Jewish belief that Jacob and Esau aren't just two brothers that don't get along.  They are also a metaphor for the ongoing conflict between Jews and non-Jews.  (In Biblical times, Esau character represented the evil Edomites.  To the early rabbis, Esau represented the Roman Empire. Later, that association morphed into Christianity.)

For thousands of years, then, we had rabbis living in Eastern Europe (in Christian countries), where they often witnessed terrible and demeaning acts of anti-Semitism.  And every year, as they read through this week's Torah portion, there was validation for them: that this is (unfortunately) how the world is destined to be.  According to their reading of the Torah, Jews and Christians are not supposed to get along with one another.

And, by and large, that held up until about 200 years ago.  Then, the Enlightenment happened.  The Enlightenment brought us the philosophical ideas of rationalism, and of equality among humanity.  And although the Enlightenment began as a European phenomenon, I think it's safe to say that the movement found its fullest expression here....on our side of the the United States.

The 350 year story of Jews in America is remarkable: precisely because it defies the fatalism of this week's Torah portion.  The Biblical Author, and the rabbis of 1000 years ago might never have been able to imagine a society in which Jews were able to become fully integrated and equal (with a relatively few minor exceptions).  But we certainly can.  All we have to do is wake up every morning, and celebrate the great success story that we Jews have found/made for ourselves here in this unique land.

One "proof" of that is a significant milestone that will be taking place next weekend in Philadelphia.  Dignitaries - including Vice President Biden - will be joining together to mark the grand opening of the National Museum of American Jewish History.  Located on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, the museum is a concretized expression of our pride: at the achievements of American Jews, and of the contributions that we have made to American life in general.

I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to watch this lovely film that was made to mark the museum's opening:

Speaking of notable should also check this next one out too.  It's a promotional video for the charity American Jewish World Service made by American Jewish filmmaker Judd Apatow:

Besides the fact that I'm a huge fan of AJWS, I love the video because it highlights this wonderful convergence of Jewish and non-Jewish Hollywood stars who are all proudly standing behind a great Jewish cause.  More importantly: they're all standing behind a core Jewish value: the idea that, no matter who we are, or where we come from...everyone deserves the right to live in dignity, free of poverty, and to be free in general.

Incidentally, that's the reason that Jews came to this country in the first place.

It's also the reason America was founded in the first place.  So that people of diverse backgrounds would have a haven and a homeland: to live together, respecting one another no matter what their differences, in order to be free.

You's worth calling your attention to the speech that Joe Lieberman gave back in the summer of 2000, when he accepted the Democratic nomination to be Al Gore's Vice President.  (He's the first - and only - Jew to ever receive a major party nomination for VP or Prez.)  In the speech, in which he reflects on his family's biography, he keeps returning to the refrain "Only in America."

It was such a fitting sentiment then, and it still is today.

With the possible exception of the modern State of Israel, "only in America" have Jews been able to blossom: religiously, culturally, academically, ethnically, etc. etc. etc.  And we've been able to fully come into our own because - contrary to this week's Torah portion - we have been blessed to live in a society that believes that people of different backgrounds do not have to be in conflict.  That it is entirely possible, and preferable, for all of us to get along with one another.  And to do it in such a way that it doesn't just benefit ourselves - but the rest of the country as well.

As we celebrated the honored place that our community has within America today, may we also reflect on what we owe in return: what obligations do we have - as Jews - to better America, because of all that America has given us?  I'd love to hear your thoughts about this important question.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Paging Dr. Freud: Halloween Edition


Well...It's Halloween weekend.  Millions of kids (and adults like you?) are getting ready to don costumes, put on masks, and set out on the annual quest of trick-or-treating.

Besides the candy, I think that Halloween is so amazing because of its escapism.  It's one of the few times during the year when we get to mask ourselves...we get to hide/forget who we really are, and instead pretend to be someone or something else.  For a few hours - thanks to the magic of a costume - we get to put our baggage aside.  Gone are the issues with our spouses or parents, and our siblings and children.  Goodbye real and authentic and complicated selves.  Hello Superman, Lady Gaga, and Disney Princess.

I would say - however - that this is part of the trick of Halloween.  We might think that we can make our real selves disappear.  But there's a part of ourselves - maybe the most inner and central part of our personalities that we carry with us wherever we go.  Our unconscious - which helps to define who we are as people - is not something that can be hidden away, or covered by a costume, even for Halloween (or Purim for that matter).  Our unconscious is something that is constantly demanding to be acknowledged and examined.  It is something to be reckoned with, for if we don't - we might be unconsciously influenced by it, to make choices that we might not otherwise have made.

Freud understood this well, and devoted his life's work to writing about it.  But the amazing thing, to me, is that the unconscious is alive and well as a notion in the Torah and its accompanying commentaries too!  And we need look no further than this week's Torah portion - Parshat Chayei Sarah - for proof of it.

One of the highlights of this week's portion is the news that Abraham's servant has found a wife for Isaac.  Rebekah is introduced to Isaac, and the next thing we know: "Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah.  He married Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her" (Gen. 24:67).

Why would the Torah go out of its way to mention "the tent of his mother Sarah"?  Sarah dies at the very beginning of this week's Torah portion.  But what does her tent have to do with Isaac's later marriage?

Well....according to Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator of the Middle Ages, it isn't just that Isaac is still grieving Sarah.  It's that Isaac had unresolved feelings of love/infatuation for his (now deceased) mother.  Rashi actually writes in his commentary that when Rebekah enters Sarah's tent - she becomes Sarah (in Isaac's eyes).  The second part of his comment is more politically correct: Rashi says that what he means is that Rebekah had spiritual 'powers' just like Sarah did.  But the meaning of the first part of his comment is provocative: Rashi suggests that Isaac fell in love with Rebekah because she was (on some level) Sarah.

Isaac's unconscious must have been in overdrive at the moment.  Standing in the tent with Rebekah - his eyes are blinded.  (Incidentally, the Midrash notes that Isaac was blinded during the Akedah in Genesis 22.)  He only sees what his unconscious shows him (her resemblance to his mother) and not who she actually is.

I would argue that this is bad news...As it happens, Isaac and Rebekah wind up having a totally dysfunctional marriage later in the Torah, culminating in the irresponsible way in which they raised their twin sons Jacob and Esau.  One can only wonder if that dysfunction stems from the complicated way that Isaac and Rebekah's relationship began in this week's Torah portion: with him marrying her in order to meet a psychological need that had been left unhealthily festering inside himself for who knows how long.

What about with us?  What are the hidden conflicts or losses in our own unconscious? How do they impact the choices that we make in our lives – not just in our choice of partners, but in the way we interact with others?

Halloween may be one of those days on the calendar when we have permission to ignore all of these questions. When it is perfectly acceptable to put on a costume and pretend to be someone else – unfettered by the complex relationships that typically weigh us down.

This week’s Torah portion, on the other hand, reminds us that our unconscious cannot, and should not, remain unexamined. Rather than don a costume, the story of Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage is a reminder to us about the importance of being self-reflective and self-aware. The more we understand about who we are – on a deep inner level – the healthier our relationships will be.

So – when Halloween is over – let’s all take off the masks that we usually wear in order to avoid having to face the messiest parts of our lives. And instead, let’s be courageous enough to take a small risk, by reaching out to a therapist, a rabbi, or a friend. To begin a conversation about our parents, and our siblings, and about all of the other people and factors that make us who we are.   And once we’ve begun to do that, then maybe we can assert a little more control over our unconscious as to who we are destined to be.

Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Halloween!)

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Committed Are You?: Acting Constructively (Not Destructively) In Our Romantic Relationships

Ah...the world of romantic relationships.  So exciting.  So complex.

Unless you've made an ideological decision to be celibate (not typically a Jewish decision, though there are some rare exceptions), every Jewish adult - on some level - confronts the question about the nature of the romantic encounters/relationships that he/she has had (or not had) in the past, is having (or not having) presently, or wants to have (or not have) in the future.

For singles: this might mean considering what your emotional and physical needs are, and what kind of person might be able to meet them.

For those who are already in a relationship: it means evaluating your current situation.  Is your partner meeting your emotional and physical needs?  And if the answer is no: how do you handle that situation?

If we are going to be honest with ourselves, then we must acknowledge that these are not easy questions.  The answers to these questions don't just reflect on the other important people in our lives: they are also deeply revealing about who we are.  Whether we feel a sense of loss or mourning because there's something important that might be missing.  Or a sense of unresolved anger because an ex hurt us and/or caused a previous relationship to end.

Like I said: this is all very complex.

In typical Jewish fashion, there's a little bit that we can learn about all of this from this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayera.  This week's Torah portion includes the troubling story of Hagar, Sarah's maidservant who becomes Abraham's mistress (with Sarah's permission because Abraham and Sarah wanted a child but had wrongly presumed that Sarah was infertile).  Once Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Sarah has Abraham banish Hagar and her son Ishmael - for fear that Abraham might prefer Ishmael over Isaac.

There's lots of things that are messed up with these family arrangements.  But the number one thing that hits me is that Abraham foolishly believed that he could somehow make these synchronistic (being in more than one relationship simultaneously) relationships work.  How could he truly "be there" as a loving partner should, to both women at the same time?

Regardless of Sarah's initial collusion, the results are disastrous: he is forced to choose one over the other.  And he doesn't just break Hagar's heart. He also breaks apart a family (Ishmael, after all, never got to fully know his father).

You might counter by saying that there are plenty of examples in the Torah of polygamy (being married to more than one spouse at a time).  And I would say: it didn't go well in any of those situations either. 

One of the tragic lessons of this love-triangle-gone-bad is that we human beings are not built to truly be invested and committed to more than one loving partner at a time.

This is part of the basis for the Jewish legal value of monogamy, and the broad Jewish ethical value that I will describe as 'exclusivity.'

For those of you who are single: our tradition is clear...exclusivity is the goal of an ideal Jewish romantic relationship. 

To our college students....where the entire formal enterprise of dating might seem anachronistic, you have a tremendous challenge before you.  We live in a cultural moment where "hooking up" - enjoying casual acts of intimacy (a paradox if I ever heard of one) - with partners that you hardly know at all is not just socially's the norm.  Everyone is doing it.

Romance, in Judaism, is anything but casual.  It's an incredibly serious enterprise: a chance for us to make ourselves emotionally (and perhaps even physically) vulnerable.  Is this really something that should be done randomly or casually?  Is it something that is really supposed to be done with multiple partners during a single week/month/etc?

What about if you're already in a relationship?  I'm not talking about a person that you've been out with one or two times.  I'm talking about someone that you already have significant feelings for....maybe you've already had a formal conversation about your exclusivity (i.e. not seeing other people).  Maybe you're formally engaged or married.  What are the ramifications to those relationships, if you wind up becoming intimate (physically or emotionally) with someone else?  How are you supposed to honor your committments to your partner in that kind of compromised scenario?

I wish there was an easy answer to that last question.  There isn't one.  The only advice I have is: we have a Jewish obligation to do everything in our power to use some personal will power and resist those unfortunate entanglements in the first place.  As we learn from Abraham this week: no good can come from being in two romantic relationships at the same time.

That's why I think it's so important for all of us - no matter if we're single or in a relationship, to do a little reflecting this Shabbat.  We have got to know ourselves. what are our needs?  Are they being met?

And if they're not being met: what's the healthiest way, and the most ethical way, to address that?  If we're in a relationship, maybe the obvious place to begin is by having an honest conversation with our partner.  For all of us, there are always counselors, therapists, best friends, even rabbis (!) to share with for support and guidance.

For me, one thing is for sure.  This week's Torah portion teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our choices.  Here's to hoping that, in the future, we are all strong enough to make choices that are constructive, rather than destructive.

What about you?  Do you agree that exclusivity...being in one committed relationship at a an appropriate ideal?  Or do you think that it is "okay" in this day and age to puruse multiple relationships simultaneously?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Love The One You're With

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, introduces us to Abraham and Sarah (aka Abram and Sarai), the founders of the Jewish people.  The portion opens in Genesis 12:1 with lofty prose as we witness Abraham going forth from his father's house, as he heads out, on his way to the Land of Israel.  But by 12:10, the text takes a sharp turn:

"There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.  And it occurred, as he was about to enter Egypt, that he said to his wife Sarai: 'See now, I have known that you are a beautiful woman.  And it shall occur, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say 'This is his [Abram's] wife!'  Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Therefore, please say that you are my sister...' (Gen 12:10-13).

Biblical scholars refer to this story as part of the "sister-wife" motif.  (Fascinatingly, the motif repeats itself in Genesis 20 and 26.  More on that some other time...)

We could certainly spend ample time criticizing Abraham as to why he  would basically prostitute his own wife off onto the king of Egypt in order to save his own skin.  But not this week.

This week, I want to read Abraham's motives more sympathetically.  Imagine how difficult it must have been for him to have to go to Sarah - the woman he loved - and put her in the position.  Maybe we can presume that Abraham truly felt like he had no other choice.  If they were to survive, this drastic series of steps had to be taken.

And so, he lied about who he was, and about the nature of his relationship with his significant other.

He had to lie about who he was - and about the nature of his relationship with his significant other.

Who knew that the sister-wife motif could be read as a pre-modern clarion call for gay rights?!

Bear with me as I try to explain.

Egypt, in our tradition, is always associated with degradation, humiliation, and enslavement.  Abraham was never enslaved like his descendants (of the Passover story):

His degradation was of a different sort: he was forced into the closet (so to speak), prohibited by circumstance from publicly loving his partner.

How sad it is that that same humiliation persists in the world today, as a private Egypt to be borne in the closet, by gays and lesbians around the world.  The recent, and utterly tragic/horrific/depressing suicide of Tyler Clementi on September 22 is a reminder that there is still much work to be done in our society to insure that those who identify as LGBTQ are granted the same respect, rights, and freedoms as any heterosexual individual.

There is, indeed, much political work to be done in this regard.  Gay Californians, for example, are still waiting in limbo to find out if they have the legal right to marry.  And there is much talk in Washington (and a federal court case right here in California) about ending the ban on openly gay soldiers serving in the military.  Interested in getting involved in the political fight?  Visit our movement's Religious Action Center webpage on LGBT issues before Congress here, and visit the "Take Action" page of the Human Rights Campaign here.  Sign your name onto the important Jewish community pledge here, and then visit the website of Keshet (a national Jewish gay resource and activism center).

Did you know that the Reform movement has long been a proud proponent of gay rights in this country.  You can read a Union for Reform Judaism resolution in support of gay rights going back to 1977 here and a resolution from the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1993 here.  Closer to home, you can read Rabbi Frank's moving 2008 Rosh HaShanah sermon on gay marriage here.

Although this might be a political battle - at the end of the day what we really need is a sea change in our culture....when we can shift from a society that is suspicious of anyone that is a little bit different, to a society that recognizes the humanity embedded in each one of us.  We hope and pray that when that day arrives (and may it come soon), then the Abraham's (and Tyler's) of this world will never feel like they have to hide in the closet again.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can You Believe It?


It's hard for me to believe...But, according to a Gallup poll published this past spring, only 53% of Americans believe that the planet is being affected by global warming.  And, similarly, 48% of Americans think that public concern for the future health and safety of the environment is grossly exaggerated.

No doubt my personal bias is shining through here.  But it is astonishing to me that basically one of out every two Americans thinks that global warming is a bunch of baloney!

God knows that I am not a green saint.  I could recycle more.  And I could cut down on the amount of waste that me and my family produce.  (Every time I change my new baby's diapers, I feel totally conflicted.)  But I proudly drive a hybrid car, because it's one small, but tangible way that I can help the world, by using less gas/producing less air pollution.

What about the one half of our population that doesn't believe that global warming is real?  What will it take for them to buy into the idea; and, more importantly: what will it take to get them to start doing a few little things to help the planet heal? 

Believe it or not, this is precisely the same question that this week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach, asks as well.

The debate over the subject arises because of the Torah's curious choice of wording regarding the circumstances that led to Noah actually boarding the Ark that he had built at God's command.

Genesis 7:7 notes that: "Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons' wives, went into the ark mipnei the waters of the Flood."

The Hebrew word mipnei can be translated either as: 'before' OR 'because of.'

The conflicting translations carry very different meanings.

If we translate mipnei as 'before' than Noah is akin to the Al Gore's of the world.  Like Gore, Noah was a visionary: he took God at God's word, understood the threat that was facing the planet (in the form of the coming Flood), and acted to do something about it - before the disaster arrived full on.

The problem is...that Noah is looked down upon by our rabbis of the last 2000 years.  He is not seen as a tremendous role model or saint.  Instead he's seen as a reluctant partner of God's.  Thus our great commentator Rashi writes that "Noah had little faith - he only half-believed that the flood would actually come, and so he did not enter the Ark until the waters were before him.

Rashi translates that pesky word mipnei in the causative sense.  Noah got on the boat because the waters were actively rolling in his direction.  He waited until the last possible minute, because he didn't believe that the disaster would come.

This not-so-generous assessment of Noah's character is representative of the one half of our country who deny that our world is broken right now...and who won't act until our weather really acts up, or until we see a melting Alaskan glacier float past Moonlight Beach.

Of course: it is not very Jewish to think like this.  The stature of Rashi aside, we're not supposed to denigrate Noah in those terms, and it's not very respectful for me/us to look down on our fellow Americans who aren't moved to go green now either.

In that spirit, I want to share with you this beautiful Hasidic commentary:

"Heaven forbid that we say that Noah, who was a righteous and perfect person, had any doubts about his faith [or about God].  Noah believed in those who lacked faith - he was certain that they would change [which would have prevented the Flood], and that was why he didn't [get on the Ark sooner] and that was why he didn't think that the flood would come at all."

This is an incredible teaching: that faith isn't just about believing in God, or about believing in the impending crisis facing our planet.  It's also about believing in our neighbors: in their potential to change the way they live - that they might join in our efforts to make this world a better place.

Sure, there is a part of me that is depressed by that Gallup poll.  But I will also work harder to see the poll as an invitation: for me to seek out a renewed sense of faith and trust in the people that surround me.  Even when the data suggests otherwise, I have hope in our shared capacity to change.  To work together.  To heal our world.  To insure that humanity will never be faced with an impending Flood.  Again.


There are so many resources that are available to help us on our quest to heal the environment (Jewish and non-Jewish).  Here's a brief selection - for you to use on your own, or to share with anyone you know who might be a little skeptical about the dangers facing our planet.
  • The Evidence for Global Warming, as presented on Al Gore's website.  The site also offers a simple list of easy suggestions that we can all pursue to begin doing our part to help.  (I'm a big fan of the idea behind Meatless Mondays!)
  • Climate Change resources from the Federal Government can be accessed here.  Resources from the United Nations can be found here.
  • COEJL (Council on the Environment and Jewish Life) is the Jewish community's leading environmental-advocacy organization.
  • The Reform Movement has a long history of green leadership.  Here is a URJ resolution on the subject from 1991.  More recently, the CCAR (Reform rabbis) passed this resolution in 2005.  And you can click here for an array of resources from our movement's Religious Action Center (RAC) in Washington.
And, finally, just to inspire you...I wanted to mention the amazing ad campaign that the Alliance for Climate Protection did a few years ago, emphasizing how important it is for Americans of all different backgrounds to come together on behalf of our environment.  Enjoy these three brief commercials:

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.

The media is all abuzz about the new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Depending on how you read the results, it's either really bad news for the future of American religious life (because we Americans apparently don't know anything about religion), or really good news (because we apparently know a lot more than you might expect us to).  (You can take the quiz - which was the basis for the new poll - yourself by clicking here.)

For me, the most interesting part of the survey was the data about how much American Jews know about Judaism.  To find this information, you have to dig for it.  Check out pp. 26-ff of the full survey report.

The survey asked two questions about Judaism: when does Shabbat begin; and what religious tradition was Maimonides associated with?

We Jews get an A Plus for knowing when Shabbat begins: 94% knew the correct answer!

Regarding the Maimonides question: not so much.  Almost half of the Jews surveyed did not know that Maimonides was Jewish!

Now, I'll be the first to tell you that Maimonides is right up there - in terms of the top 3 most important and greatest rabbis of all time IMHO.

But is even an elementary knowledge about Maimonides indicative of general Jewish knowledge?  I'm not sure.

More to the point: what are the most important things that Jews should know about Judaism?  That's the question that has been on my mind ever since the Pew results came out.

It's an especially relevant question given that Simchat Torah was observed this week.  Simchat Torah isn't just a celebration of Torah in general.  It is, more particularly, our celebration of Jewish knowledge - of the transmission of Jewish learning from one generation to the next.

So, in that spirit, this week's posting is meant to get you talking: about what you think the most essential elements of Judaism are.  The really essential things that you think we should all know a little bit about.

There's so much to choose from!  Maybe you think that our Jewish identities are focused around the notion of "love your neighbor as yourself."  Or maybe, for you, the key part of Judaism is the way in which our religious values can speak to the way we think politically - whether we situate ourselves on the left or on the right.

The beauty of this exercise is that there's no right answer.

If I were asked to compose the Jewish elements of the next Pew survey, these are the 3 things I would ask about.  (Ask me tomorrow and I'll probably change my answers!)

1) GOD.  Jews believe in God.  Okay: many (most?) American Jews aren't certain about their belief.  And we're definitely not very comfortable talking about it - we'd rather define our Jewish identities ethnicallyA few have taken the bold step to absolutely refute God's existence.  But all that being said, I would assert that a central tenet of the Jewish tradition is that God exists.  One God in fact.  But Jews don't just believe in a "supernatural" God - a God that absolutely hears our prayers and answers them; a God that performs verifiable miracles; and a God that can directly intervene in our personal everyday lives.  For more than a hundred years, many (most?) Non-Orthodox Jews have believed in a less supernatural (more rational) God/Presence in the world.  Many of us (myself included) think of God as the Force (or conscience) that impels us to do good in the world (see Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan).  And others think of God as being the Profound Byproduct of two people that are genuinely present and caring for one another (see Martin Buber).  More than Maimonides, Kaplan/Buber/the other great names of contemporary Jewish thought are the essential theologians that Jews should know about today: because they give us the vocabulary to speak about what it might mean to believe in God in the 21st century.

2) TORAH.  Speaking of Simchat Torah...It is absolutely essential, in my opinion, that Jews today understand that there is a big spectrum of belief that exists about the authorship of the Torah.  Sure, there are some in our community that still believe that God dictated every word of it to Moses.  But it is devastatingly sad to me that so few Non-Orthodox Jews realize the tremendous scholarship that has existed since the middle of the 19th century regarding a more scientific or academic approach to the authorship question today.  Not only can one be a good Jew and believe that human beings wrote the Torah.  But in my opinion, that is the most authentic belief to have, if one has made the choice to live a Non-Orthodox life.  What I wish more contemporary Jews knew about Judaism is that we behave Jewishly in the world, today because Jewish ritual and values speak to us, validating our past and present, and charting a meaningful way forward into our future.  And I would want everyone to know that we should never do something Jewish because we erroneously believe that God wrote something down on a piece of paper, and that we'll be punished (here or in the afterlife) if we don't follow the rules. 

3) ISRAEL.  Jews have an inalienable claim to the Land of Israel.  But what I wish more Jews understood is that that claim doesn't come from the Bible (a man made document as I argue above).  It comes from the fact that my and your Jewish ancestors have been screwed by history. We have been discriminated against - just because we're Jewish.  By every major Western empire and civilization for the last 2500 years, with the exception of America.  Time and again, crazy people have tried to wipe us off the face of the Earth.  Hitler just happens to have been the most successful, and most recent example, of a much larger phenomenon.  But Theodor Herzl, who understood the reality of anti-Semitism more than three decades before Hitler came to power, dreamed up an incredible answer to this persistent problem: a homeland.  A Jewish homeland.  The one place in the world where Jews would be guaranteed to be free, and safe from discrimination and genocide.  And from his dream, the State of Israel was born.  And even though Arab countries have sought Israel's destruction since before its birth...still we believe, and still we hope, in the possibility for peace in the Middle East.  Because what other choice do we have?  What I want every Jew to know, and to pass on to their children, is this: that we can't necessarily make anti-Semitism disappear from the world.  But we can stand up for ourselves, and demand a right to be safe, and to exist.  Even after all of these years.

God, Torah, and Israel.  The Big Stuff.  That's what I wish we Jews knew more about. 

What about you: how much of this stuff did you already know?  More importantly: what parts of Judaism are most important to you?  If there were only three things, or values, that you could pass along to your kids what would they be?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sukkot: Doing "The Wave" (Or Why The Rabbi Says It's Okay to Pray for Your Favorite Sports Teams)

Chag Sameach everyone - wishing you a Happy Sukkot.  Sukkot, of course, is the weeklong fall festival meant to celebrate the ancient harvest season, and recall the unique dwellings that our ancestors lived in as they wandered through the desert.

Sukkot is also the season dedicated to the waving of the lulav and etrog.  For video of people shaking the lulav and etrog, click here.  And if you really can't find your way to a sukkah over the holiday to shake the lulav and etrog, well...I guess you could click here to do it virtually with your iphone.

Our ancient Israelite ancestors shook the lulav and etrog primarily as a kind of a rain dance.  The rainy season begins in Israel during this time of year.  And our ancestors knew that for a healthy harvest next summer, the land needed exactly the right amount of rain in the coming winter.  The shaking of the lulav and etrog is probably an expression of their desire for a healthy dose of rain.

We are like our ancestors: we don't know what the coming year will bring for us either.  Will it be a comfortable and bountiful one, or will it be more austere?  Will we be blessed with life and strength to make it through the winter to the springtime?

That being said, waving the lulav and etrog isn't really about asking for rain anymore.  At least not to me.  Because - frankly - I don't really believe that God is going to make it rain just because I ask God to.  Rain happens for scientific/meteorological reasons. 

But there's a part of me that still needs a reason to wave the lulav...for the ritual to make sense to me, I have to be asking/hoping for something.

Now I suppose I could (should!!) be waving the lulav for peace in the Middle East, or a cure for cancer.

But instead, I'll be waving the lulav and etrog in honor of my Philadelphia Phillies, who look like they could be cruising toward their third World Series appearance in as many years.  (Tut tut tut...knock on wood...)

Now I's sort of inappropriate for a clergyperson to encourage people to actively pray for their favorite sports team to win.  That's not really what God is, after all.  God doesn't take sides in Heaven.  God isn't a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan.  God is God, and it cheapens the Holy One to think that God is rooting on any one team in particular.

That being said: I'll still be waving my lulav this year for the Phillies.  I'll do it because this is the time of year, after getting through the High Holy Days, and as we prepare for the onset of Fall and Winter, when we are searching for some kind of reaffirmation...some verifiable sense that the world is in order, that our place in it is secure, and that will be blessed to live through to see another (baseball) season.

That reaffirmation can come from any number of sources.  We can find it after having a spiritual experience in nature, or within a new or renewed relationship with a loved one. 

But can't it also be found in sports?  Think about the incredible high that we experience when our team wins a big game.  It's not just a sense of jubilation because we won.  It's also because - for a brief instant - the world makes sense.  It is aligned as it should be.  The good guys (our team) won.  Life is good. 

This reaffirmation is fleeting, to be sure.  The glow from a big win only lasts a little while.  But here's the good news: so does the sting of defeat.  Our disappointment, when a sports team loses, or when we experience a more substantial 'life setback' is also only temporary.  Because we know, deep down, that a new season - a new beginning - is always around the corner. 

So, yeah, I'm going to wave my lulav for my Phillies this year.  Because I'll hope - like I do every year around this time when they're playing well - that this will be a good year, my year, our year.  That a win for my team will be the reaffirmation I am looking for, right now, that says: all is right and good in the world...That, because of a Phillies appearance in the World Series (even I'm too humble to pray for a World Series win), I might have the strength to keep on going, with a renewed sense of hope that I'll live to the witness a new (baseball) season, and a whole new set of new beginnings once again.

Chag Sameach.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur Sermon 5771: Minding Our Mortality

There’s the story of the man who remarks to his friend: “I’ve sure gotten old. I’ve had two bypass surgeries, a hip replacement, new knees. I’m half blind, can’t hear anything quieter than a jet engine, take 40 different medications that make me dizzy, winded, and susceptible to blackouts. I have bouts with dementia: Sheesh, I can’t even remember if I’m 26 or 86! Plus, I’ve lost all my friends….But thank God, I still have my driver’s license!”

Aging: it’s a subject that makes all of us a little uncomfortable. The word itself conjures up anxieties of potential loss: of our good looks and sharp minds, of our independence, and – eventually – of our very own lives.

In an attempt to ignore the ticking of our own internal clocks, we deny our mortality; using every trick in the book (and sometimes going to great expense as well) we hide our true age from our friends, and from ourselves.

For proof of this, one need only look as far as the August edition of Vogue, the publication’s annual issue on aging.

At first glance, I found much worthy content in the magazine. There was an impressive list of essays written by diverse contributors, all considering the different challenges of aging that women face in each decade of their lives.

What was less than impressive to me were the advertisements that appeared on the pages in between the essays. They carried with them a decidedly different message. Within the first 90 pages of the magazine, there were no fewer than eight full pages ads, along the lines of the one touting Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Cream. The copy for that ad promised “a dramatic reduction in the visible signs of aging.” And, just in case I missed the message the first time, the cream also delivers “comprehensive anti-aging like no other formula.”

Our own Jewish tradition offers a markedly different response to the question of how we are supposed to come to terms with our aging and ultimate mortality.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham was not only the first Jew of all time. He was also, according to the rabbis, the first person to ever show signs of aging. In the beginning, according to the story, human beings never aged physically. How did that come to change?

It seems that Abraham and Isaac looked remarkably alike. And as Isaac aged, he was increasingly mistaken for Abraham as they went out and about. And it got to be so confusing that Abraham got fed up. Finally he prayed that God would alter his appearance. Abraham wanted people to know which of the two of them was deserving of the respect befitting such an important communal leader and elder. God heard Abraham’s plea, and ever since – we have all been fated to physically age as we get older.

Amazing: Abraham wanted to age.

Perhaps it is not realistic for us to ever want to age, but we can’t avoid it either. We are commanded to accept it.

Today is Yom Kippur. It is the day we stand before God in judgment, unadorned by the tools that we use to hide our true age. We wait, on this day, to learn if we will be inscribed for life, or for death, in the coming year. Today is the day – the only day on the Jewish calendar, when we come face to face with our own mortality.

And so we wonder: what will the coming year have in store for us? Will it be another year of our denying the passage of time and the ticking of our own clocks? Or will we have the strength to acknowledge: that our clocks are always ticking? And that all we can do is embrace each day with gratitude, with awe, and with the commitment to improve ourselves; thankful for the gift we have been given, and charged by God to make the most of it.

On the subject of gratitude, the German writer Thomas Mann wrote: “Hold fast the time! […] Disregarded, it slips away. […] Hold every moment sacred. Give each day clarity and meaning, each the weight of thine awareness, each its true and due fulfillment.”

Mann teaches us that our time on earth is finite and precious: that every day is a gift. And the only way we will ever be able to appreciate that gift, and be grateful for it, is if we pause long enough to examine our lives and marvel: how wonderful it is that I am blessed to live.

Our prayerbook expresses this sentiment in seemingly mundane fashion. Daily, upon arising, we are taught to recite the blessing asher yatzar. In contemporary practice, we recite the blessing in the synagogue, where it has come to express gratitude for the health of our bodies in general.

But the passage was originally written with a different intention. The text was to be recited immediately upon using the bathroom for the first time every day. It was, and is, a vehicle for us to express gratitude to God: that all of the intricate organs, and passageways in our bodies function as they are meant to, enabling us to live in good health.

If we think about our bodies – and more broadly our lives - in these terms, it truly is a miracle that we are able to get up in the morning. And the only reasonable Jewish response to this miracle is to answer with blessing.

But reciting a simple blessing is not enough. We also have the opportunity, in expressing gratitude, to live our lives as a blessing. To realize that life each day is a gift, and to make the most of that gift by living it to the fullest, in contributing to our world, and by seeking out meaningful and enriching relationships with others.

A number of my own friends and peers in their 20s and 30s are having a hard time following this advice.

According to social scientists, my generation is caught in suspended animation somewhere in between adolescence and adulthood.

Frank Furstenberg, who studies these issues for the MacArthur Foundation, calls the notion of the onset of adulthood occurring at 18 or even 21 as positively “archaic.” Friends: we are, witnessing a massive change in American demographics.

Did you know that a quarter of all 25 year old white men are living with their parents? To be sure, some of those numbers are caused by the recession…It’s only natural in tough times for children to want to return to the safety of the nest for parental support, financial and otherwise.

But there is a larger shift at play within these numbers. By choice, my generation is increasingly delaying the start of their first “real” jobs. We are putting off saving for the future. And we are less interested in pursuing long term romantic relationships.

On one level, this is happening because my generation is being told that living to 100 is practically a sure thing. Maybe there is no real urgency to start living a “normal” adulthood. Who cares if we bum off our parents for another five years, or couch surf our way through a friend’s apartment. We have our whole lives in front of us. What’s the rush?

But on this Yom Kippur, I would respond by suggesting that my generation seems, frankly, ungrateful. Ungrateful for the gift of life it has been blessed with (which we all know might change at any time), and ungrateful for the opportunities that we have been given.

The clock is ticking for all of us. Perhaps the ticking means something different for someone who is 25, compared to one who is 75, but the clock is ticking for all of us nonetheless. Our time – our lives – are not meant to be wasted. We have the potential to live so richly: by helping others, raising families, and contributing to the health and vitality of our world. And the first step toward living that kind of meaningful life is by fostering a sense of gratitude: by finding a way to say thank you for the gift of life. Not by delaying our aging, but by embracing it.

Fostering a sense of gratitude is only one key ingredient when it comes to a compelling vision of Jewish aging. Our tradition insists that gratitude be accompanied by a profound sense of awe.

Awe is an emotion and mindset that affects the way we judge: ourselves, others, even the natural world around us. Thus Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that: “Just as the grandeur of the sun or an oak tree is not reducible to the function it fulfills…so a human being must be regarded as significant and valuable in himself or herself.”

Heschel was chiding all of those who might try to describe Mt. Everest as simply being the world’s tallest mountain. To behold Everest in all its mystery and beauty is to experience something that is far greater than any measurement.

Similarly: we transcend our statistics. We are more than a B.A. from Berkeley, or the CEO of a major company. There is nothing wrong, of course, with being proud of these personal accomplishments. But to live with a sense of awe is to be mindful of the majesty of creation: of the fact that we are far more than the summary of our resumes.

This is an important message to keep in mind as we retire. As we transition out of regular working life, we are counseled to practice a sense of awe regarding ourselves and others. We are never just the retired Vice President of So-and-so. We are individuals who can contribute in so many other unique ways - ways that transcend the outdated structure of an employer-employee relationship.

Fostering a sense of awe isn’t just about how we think of ourselves, it’s also about how we treat our bodies as we age.

There is an unfortunate tendency in our society that rewards youthfulness. We already saw how the cosmetics industry plays on this theme in its marketing. We can also see it in the disturbing trend toward the increased use, and abuse, of steroids in athletes. Older athletes abuse steroids because they are convinced that they’ll only be able to win if they trick their bodies into turning back the clock, by synthetically manipulating themselves to behave as if they were five or ten years younger.

Beyond all of the other risks associated with this kind of drug use – this behavior is a violation of the Jewish imperative to live with a sense of awe…a sense of deep and profound respect for our bodies, and the way that God created them.

We are more than our resumes at the end of our careers, and we are more than the speed of the fastball we can throw. When we forget to foster awe, we are not just misjudging others and ourselves, we are also ignoring our tradition’s teachings about how we are to age, and live, in the world.

Jewish aging begins with gratitude and with awe. But as we age, we are also commanded to turn inward – to reflect on how we have lived – so that we might repent and improve.

On this Yom Kippur, devoted so centrally to teshuvah, it is fitting to recall the words of our rabbis, who wrote that: “People act wickedly in their youth, but as they age they have the ability to perform good deeds.”

We have the ability to change. This is a central tenet of our tradition and it applies as much to the young adult as it does to the senior citizen. It is never too early, or too late, to change for the better.

Lillian Hellman, the American Jewish author, used the metaphor of a painting to describe the possibility of repentance as we age. She wrote that: “Paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible in some pictures to see the artist’s original lines: [for example] a tree will show through a woman’s dress […] That is called pentimento because the painter repented, and changed his mind.”

On this Yom Kippur, let us strive to embody both artist and canvas: that we might be blessed with the ability to consider our pasts…and then be empowered to change for the better. No matter how young, or how old: to age Jewishly means always being committed to repenting and re-painting the brush strokes of our lives.

A few years ago, the US Postal Service issued instructions to post offices around the country to improve customer service. A recent poll had indicated that Americans were frustrated because they spent too much time waiting in line to mail their packages. The centerpiece of the ensuing customer service campaign was a directive to 37,000 local post offices to remove any clocks from public view, thereby hoping that customers would be less conscious of how much time was passing while they were waiting in line.

With all due respect to those devoted civil servants in Washington, we know that that strategy doesn’t work. Hiding the clocks from our view can’t change the fact that the clocks are still ticking.

Of course the clocks don’t just tick while we wait. They tick – every second of every day – for all of us, marking out the moments and seasons of our lives, and ticking – one second closer – to our fated end.

All we can do is make a choice: we can either deny that inevitability, or accept it. On this Yom Kippur, the one day on our calendar devoted specifically to contemplating our eventual death: the choice is clear. Our age-old tradition teaches us that we should accept our mortality.

On this day, let us foster gratitude, awe, and a commitment to constantly improve ourselves. Then we shall surely be blessed: to make the most of the gifts we’ve been given, by living our lives to the fullest.

Shanah Tovah


To access a collection of archived Temple Solel High Holy Day sermons, click here.

In addition to the links above, you might enjoy the following:

John Glenn's return to space in 1998 was a watershed moment, in terms of the scientific study of aging (in space); and, more specifically, it was a remarkable celebration for our society of the limitless possibilities that older Americans might pursue even as they age. For more, click here.

There are a number of excellent books written about Judaism and aging. I recommend: A Heart of Wisdom by Susan Berrin and The Price and Privilege of Growing Old by Gunther Plaut. There are also many fine online resources, like this one from the Reconstructionist Movement.

There is no better example of our society's denial of death than the movement in favor of cryonics. Robert Ettinger's landmark 1964 book introduced the possibility to the world.

Check out The Death of Death by Neil Gillman for a comprehensive introduction to the question of Judaism and the Afterlife.

The September 2003 issue of the Jewish newsletter Sh'ma explored the connection between Yom Kippur, Death, and Meaning.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5771: Can You Hear Me Now?

Dave Barry once wrote that “The Internet is the most important development in the history of human communication…since the invention of call waiting.”

The Internet is an incredible advancement in communication. Maybe the most significant one ever! And thanks to the screens that bring the Internet to us - our phones, computers, televisions, and the list goes on – thanks to all of them, we are able to do extraordinary things.

Smartphones, as just one example, enable us to talk on the go, read the news wherever and whenever we please, and listen to our entire music collections. They even provide us with mostly accurate driving directions. Surely we could all cite other ways in which the Internet enables us to work more efficiently, and enjoy a higher quality of life.

And yet…if you’ll excuse me for saying so, the Internet is also a colossal waste of time. It tempts us with games, videos, and tweet after tweet after tweet.

It would be one thing if the worst consequence of this new virtual reality was some wasted time.

But there’s a more serious challenge that we face: the Internet is distracting us. It’s distracting us from our Jewish responsibility to improve the world. It’s distracting us from the most important people in our lives. And most disconcertingly, it’s causing us to forget who we are as individuals.

I wish I could stand here as a good role model…as one who has already mastered the appropriate way to integrate technology into my life. But alas – I, too, am stuck in an overly dependent relationship with my iphone. For me, these issues are personal. They get to the heart of my struggle, as I seek to be a better husband, father, and Jew.

On this Rosh HaShanah, my hope is that we can all help one another to silence our phones, so that we might better hear the sounding of the shofar. For the shofar harkens us back to our tradition’s virtues: of healing the world, strengthening our relationships with family and friends, and of finding and nurturing our true inner selves. In doing so, we will be newly equipped to live less distracted and more focused lives in this virtual age.

To begin, let us start this new year by seeking to be more thoughtful about the kinds of activities we engage in online.

Consider the amount of time we spend in front of screens each week. During those hours, we are IM’ing, downloading music, and updating our facebook profiles.

According to media consultant and author Clay Shirky, it’s not that all of those things are bad in and of themselves. It’s that we are not using them to their fullest tikkun olam potential.

The way Shirky sees it, we are wasting our free time unless we’re going online in order to make a difference in the world, by effectively using the tools that are available to us.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Shirky relates the story of how online political organizing permanently changed South Korea. After five years of banning American beef, an agreement was reached in April, 2008 that would have returned it to South Korean markets.

Shortly after the word spread about the agreement, protests broke out. Candlelight vigils were held for months, eventually attracting more than 100,000 protesters daily! They became the largest demonstrations in South Korean history.

What was most remarkable was the fact that the protesters were almost entirely middle school-aged Korean girls.

At first, commentators were befuddled. They were too young to vote; and, this demographic had never been active in politics before.

It turns out that the young girls didn’t organize because of anything they had seen in newspapers. Instead, they were getting their information from the chat room of the mega-popular boy band TVXQ.

It seems that a few articulate teens raised their concerns in the band’s chat room. And since the participants were all likeminded girls that naturally identified with one another, a revolution was born.

They ultimately shamed the South Korean president into apologizing. His Cabinet was fired. And stricter beef guidelines were enacted. All thanks to a few passionate young women who like to chat about which singer in TVXQ was their favorite.

On this Rosh HaShanah, the shofar is calling to us: to be thoughtful and virtuous about how we spend our time online.

How can we justify wasting our time online, when there is so much good that we can use the Internet for instead…so much potential for us to connect with people…not just to chitchat, or game with, or gossip with about the world….but to join together – in healing it instead.

Becoming more mindful about the way that we use the Internet is only the first step toward managing the seductiveness of our screens. To really address the concerns that our phones and computers raise, we have to begin by thinking about unplugging...about actually turning our devices off – to get away from the deafening din of the virtual crowd. We need to do a better job of focusing on the most important people in our lives: the ones who are present, right in front of us.

We know that this is true when it comes to public safety. Did you realize that 2600 people were killed last year because drivers were using phones? And that drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car accident? The only way to stop the distraction is to turn our devices off in the car.

It’s too late for John Breen to learn that lesson. In 2007, Breen was home in Illinois on leave, about to ship out with his fellow Marines to Afghanistan. Shortly before his departure, he lost control of his truck while texting. He was ejected, falling more than 200 feet away.

His mother, who is seeking to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future, wonders what contributed to John’s lack of judgment in that moment. Was it the feeling of invincibility that comes with being a Marine? Or was it his insatiable desire to plug in, after being offline during his months of training on base?

In the end, the answer doesn’t really matter. The underlying issue – that our screens are menacingly distracting – is the same. And the only way to address it is to have the strength to disconnect.

Now texting while parenting may not be the same kind of life and death situation, but we need to understand that that too is a dangerous that carries its own kind of consequences with it.

How often, in the midst of quality family time have we given in to the urge to check our phones or email? When we whip out our screens, we unwittingly tell our loved ones that our phones are more important than they are. And in doing so, we implicitly give them permission to tune us out during designated quality time as well.

The cycle has to stop. We have a Jewish obligation to minimize the distraction that inevitably comes with checking our screens. The only solution is to establish some device-free parameters in our lives.

Some families might consider establishing parts of their home as being permanently free of screens or devices. Maybe it’s the kitchen or dining room. If loving partners are looking to reignite their intimacy, then maybe it should be the bedroom. Regardless: this first approach would be for us to put some distance between ourselves and our screens in certain parts of the house.

In our tradition, we don’t just establish sacred space. We also sanctify time. For more than 3000 years, we Jews have marked sacred time by observing Shabbat, and setting it apart from the rest of the week. We do this by joining with family and friends to light candles, bless wine, and share special meals.

In that spirit, Judith Shulevitz, in her recent bestselling book The Sabbath World, described Shabbat as “the ancient equivalent of social networking software.” The best part about Shabbat is that it brings us all together.

I can’t think of a better way to establish quality, or holy, time in our homes than by designating some window of time, rather than space, as being device-free. For some families this might be from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, in the spirit of a more traditional Shabbat observance. Alternatively, maybe your family will only power down on Friday night, or during Saturday afternoon. Or maybe it won’t be until Sunday morning. Whatever it is, I would urge us to consider observing a Sabbath of the screen - period of rest…from our devices. All so that we can concentrate on each other instead.

On this day of Rosh HaShanah, the shofar calls us away from the distraction of our homepages and inboxes, so that we might do a better job of focusing on one another. Not so that we can communicate with each other in tweets of 140 characters or less, but in deeper and more meaningful ways…ways that allow us to be truly present with one another, undistracted by the screens that usually surround us.

Living virtuously isn’t just about being mindful of our behavior online, and it isn’t just about unplugging to spend more quality time with the people that matter most. In this day and age, when so much of ourselves is projected online, we have to disconnect, in order to re-connect, with our true and authentic selves.

Robert Brault once observed that “A blogger is constantly looking over his shoulder, for fear that he is not being followed.” Brault isn’t just talking about blogging. We know that we mistakenly derive our self esteem from things like the number of friends we have on facebook, or the number of people who agree with our tweets.

And we’ve become so wrapped up in the details of other people’s online lives, by obsessively following our friends’ hourly status updates, that we have convinced ourselves that if we put down our screens for even a moment, we’ll miss something essential, or be left out. In doing so, we allow our own sense of selves to become linked to the gadgets we carry.

Psychologists have a name for the condition: nomophobia – the absolute fear of being disconnected from one’s mobile phone and the Internet.

The Jewish response to this sickness, which we all suffer from to some degree, is clear: we must unplug periodically in order to shore up our own identities.

Rav Kook, writing in the beginning of the 20th century in the Land of Israel, observed that “The greater the soul, the more it must struggle to find itself. One must have extended solitude – hitbodedut – examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”

Reflective solitude. An extraordinary concept.

Maybe it’s only a few minutes a day, or an hour a week. But we need to establish some space in our lives that is just for us. Perhaps it is reading a real, live book, or cooking, or eating, or meditating. Or just plain breathing…in, and out. In…and out. To create some distance between ourselves and the maelstrom of voices, both virtual and real, that distract us every day.

I, myself, have taken up running over the last year, and it has become a highlight of my weekly routine. Even with two young children at home, and with the demands of my job, I have found a way to eke out enough time to run a few days a week.

There are no words to describe how important that experience has become to me: not to worry about email, or stay on top of the latest news. Just time to be…outside, alone, to gain some wider perspective about the things in the world that matter most. I am a happier and healthier person because I have found a way to occasionally unplug, and seek out a sense of solitude, or hitbodedut, instead.

On this Rosh HaShanah in which we strain to hear the sounding of the shofar, we must begin by retreating to a place of quiet. For we shall never be able to hear its call, amidst the clamor of our online lives.

At the start of the last century, T.S. Eliot, reacting to the new technologies that were dominating his era, wrote that people were being “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

Just as our grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to navigate the lifestyle changes that came with the inventions of their day – so too are we called upon to respond to our’s.

We recognize the consequences of doing nothing to change our ways. We will only continue to waste more time online. And as a result, the relationships that we hold most dear will suffer. Even worse: we run the risk of forgetting who we are…allowing the crowd online to dictate our sense of self and self worth.

Yet on this Rosh HaShanah, we have an opportunity: to change the way we live! To live more virtuously in this new virtual world.

The shofar’s ringtone calls out to us on this holy day – not as a meek vibration, or as a kitschy pop song. It blares to us as tekiah! It is the sound of our history and our tradition – the sound that we associate with the call to change, and to improve.

It is a call to focus. To focus our online energies on the capacity to do the work of tikkun olam. And to focus, by unplugging, so that we might do a better job of tending to our real friends.

The shofar is also a call to us: to occasionally pull away from the deceptive voices of the online crowd, that we might maintain a sense of who we really are…not just the faux online profile that we have faked ourselves into being. 

The shofar calls us on this New Year’s Day. And it is asking us: “Can you hear me now?”

Shanah Tovah.


To access a collection of archived Temple Solel High Holy Day sermons, click here.

In addition to the links above, you might enjoy the following:

Click here for an incredible article about life at the 'dawn' of the PC age.

The Road Ahead by Bill Gates - His 1995 prediction of the future.  Do you agree with the criticism here?

What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr - An excellent introduction to some of the challenges our society is facing right now, with an emphasis on the neurological impact of technology.

Time by Eva Hoffman - A delightful poetic meditation on time, with brief sections dealing with technology's impact on the subject.

The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen - An early attempt at comparing the hyperlinked-tendency of the rabbis of the Talmud with contemporary technology.  For a possible glimpse into future uses of technology for Torah study click here.

Judith Shulevitz is fine.  So is Meredith Jacobs.  But if you're going to read one book about Shabbat, then that should definitely be (without question) The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

On the question of solitude, and how to seek it out without becoming a hermit (which Judaism does not endorse), there's no better starting point than Thoreau's Walden.

William Powers also calls for a 'Sabbath of Screens' in his book Hamlet's Blackberry, which I enjoyed.

Victoria Miles, daughter of temple members Debby and Todd Buchholz, is a singer-songwriter, and her song "Virtual James" addresses some of the themes in this sermon.  Check out the song here.