Friday, January 29, 2010

Tu B'Shvat: Ode to Trees

Spoiler Alert: I'll be using some of this material for my remarks on Shabbat morning here...

The Jewish Arbor Day

That's how my Religious School teachers explained Tu B'Shvat (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat - WHICH BEGINS TONIGHT) to me when I was a kid.  But - if you don't know what Arbor Day is (did you when you were a kid???), then how is that remotely useful?!

My issues aside...Tu B'Shvat is our tradition's annual celebration of the tree.

Sure...Our Jewish tradition has a lot to say about how important trees are.  (We'll get to that in a second.)  But, my earliest memory about learning that trees are worthy of celebration comes from the movies. 

Am I the only one out there that LOVES Superman II?  Cannot get enough of that movie.  (For those that haven't seen the movie, check out the You Tube video below, which is a very contemporary-style trailer with clips from the 1980 film.)

Anyway, I bring up Superman II, because there is a scene in the middle of the movie, when Lex Luther reaches Superman's crystal palace (or whatever that place in the Arctic is called), and starts putting in crystals into the "crystal computer" device that Superman used to learn everything about his background.  Anyway, Lex Luther randomly chooses a crystal that is intended to teach Superman about...the beauty of trees!  If you listen closely to the audio of the film, you can hear the recorded voice of Superman's mother reciting Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees."  You can click here for the audio clip from the film (the first few seconds of the clip are something totally un-related - be patient!).

Although it's such a miniscule detail, I always thought that this was one of the great nuggets of the film...that Lex Luther: a criminal mind who could not possibly care less about the earth, our environment, or natural resources, would choose a crystal from the 'computer library' that celebrates all things green.

(We'll be looking at a more serious text in services this weekend about the beauty and importance of trees...)

But beyond celebrating trees in general, Tu B'Shvat presents us with the opportunity to step back and contemplate the nature of our lives and relationships, through the lens of our planet's trees.

For example, there is a longstanding Jewish mystical tradition to consider trees, by thinking about the nature of the fruit that they produce.  Low and behold, our rabbis came up with a 'fruit hierarchy' (kind of like the Tu B'Shvat version of the Food Pyramid!).  In this hierarchy, the nature of the fruits that we eat represents the kind of people that we are, and the kind of relationships that we pursue in our lives.

The first level, which our rabbis call "Assiyah" (related to the relatively simple act of just doing something in the world), refers to fruits that have an inedible outer shell.  Like an orange:

And our rabbis tell us that an orange represents our default mode, when it comes to our relationships.  When we go out and about in the world, DOING whatever it is that we need to do on a given day, and we encounter people that are difficult, or different from us, or if we are just simply in too much of a hurry, we put up an outer shell....some kind of defense so that we don't have to really interact with others.  Just orange.

Not cool.

Our mystics believed, however, that there was a second level of fruits in the world.  They called this level (or category) Yetzirah, and connected the behavior that these fruits represent as being more significant, or meritorious, than simply "doing" in the world.  Yetzirah is really about "formation" - about getting ready to do something big and new and creative and different, or about being in transition.'s a middle step - it's getting ready to bring something new into the world...before actually doing it.

This category is represented by fruits that have transcended the limitations of the orange....we're talking about fruits that do not have any outer shell.  But - as these fruits are still metaphysically in formation...they still have an inner hardness (a pit, if you will).  This is the category of the peach:

The peach represents us - and the moments in our lives - when we are striving to remove those outer walls and barriers that we so often put up to others.  And yet, we know, deep down, that we are still holding back a part of ourselves...something personal on the inside.

The final level - the level that we should all be striving for - is Briah.  Briah relates to the act of bringing something new and different into being - into creation.  On an interpersonal level, our tradition believes that when we are truly "present" or "there" for another person...when we make it all about them and not about us...when we are able to temporarily put our own needs aside - that is the moment in which our relating to someone else can bring something new, and deep, and powerful into the world.

This category refers to fruits that have no outer shell, and no inner hardness (or pit).  Like a....blueberry:

I have been going through a blueberry phase recently.  THEY ARE DELICIOUS!  Close your eyes, and imagine the last time you experienced the simply joy of eating a tasty berry.  Berries are so amazing because there's no barrier between you and the fruit.  Soft on the outside and soft on the inside.

Okay: so the blueberry technically comes from a plant or shrub, and not from a "tree."  That's a technicality.  (In its favor, the blueberry is the State Fruit of my beloved New Jersey!)  Stick with the metaphor here, people.

Just as the blueberry is soft on the outside and inside, our mystical tradition teaches us that we should be striving to be like that as well.  We should be peeling off all our layers (oops: not literally please!), in an attempt to create a greater sense of empathy and trust with the people that surround us.  If we can somehow manage to do this, our tradition believes that we will have the power to literally create and bring forth holy sparks - something new - into this world.

What fruit best represents YOU?  Take a moment on this Tu B'Shvat to think about the question.  More importantly: consider using Tu B'Shvat as an incentive to work towards Briah - of striving to be more real, and honest, and present, with the people that you encounter day in and day out. 

I can't think of a better way of honoring our trees (and their fruit), then by learning from them, and ultimately emulating them.

Happy Tu B'Shvat and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 22, 2010

John Mayer: A Pharoah of our Time?

John Mayer.

I'd call myself a fan of his music.  Especially his 2001 album "Room for Squares"  and 2008 live album "Where the Light Is."  He even played a nice duet with one of my musical heroes, Paul Simon:

(Interestingly, both Simon and Mayer are ambivalent about their Jewish identities.  How do we even know that John Mayer is (half) Jewish?  From one of his Tweets of course...)

Anyway...I always thought of John Mayer as this guy with a white-bread bland celebrity reputation.  Nice guy.  Nice songs.  That's it.

This month's "Rolling Stone" magazine is turning all of that upside down.  Click here and here for the online material relating to their John Mayer cover story.  (Disclaimer 1: There's some off color language in this material, as well as colorful references to his sex life.  Disclaimer 2: Rolling Stone has only published excerpts from their interview with him online.  To read the whole thing, you have to go out and buy the magazine from a newsstand.)

I was blown away by how incredibly narcissistic he is!  I know - I shouldn't be surprised.  After all, he's a celebrity.  But still.  This guy is wallowing in more self pity than I thought would be possible for an entertainer as successful as he is.

Of course, we're all allowed a little self pity once in a while.

What makes his situation so difficult for me to handle is the crude language that he uses in terms of objectifying himself, and his future significant other (a mysterious woman out there that he has yet to meet, but who he is literally pining after, nonetheless).

This is not the kind of rock star that I can get excited about.

I get that the people we look up to aren't perfect.  None of us are.  What I have a real problem with is the duplicity that our celebrities and political leaders sometimes practice, to cultivate an image of themselves that is inconsistent with who they really are (and what they represent).

That brings us to this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bo from the Book of Exodus.  Our parsha brings us the final three plagues in the Exodus story, culminating (next week) with the Israelites' release from slavery.

Low and behold, our vast tradition of commentary suggests that Pharaoh and John Mayer share a duplicitous aspect in terms of their personalities.  Like John Mayer, our tradition records that Pharaoh engaged in duplicity in order to win the favor and attention of the Israelites at the beginning of their enslavement.

For example, we have a midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:10) that notes that Pharaoh had a large necklace made for himself - a heavy chain with a brick hanging from it.  And every time an Israelite complained that the labor they were forced to do was too difficult, the Israelite would be brought before Pharaoh in the palace.  Pharaoh would present himself sweaty and exhausted, with the brick-necklace around his neck (to "prove" that he himself had been laboring all day!)  And he would ask the Israelite: "Are you more delicate than Pharaoh?"

Another midrash records that, one day - early in their enslavement - Pharaoh went out to the Israelites, picked up a shovel and joined them in the making of bricks.  The Israelites were so "inspired" (or scared?!) by the presence of Pharaoh, that they worked doubly hard that day.  When the sun went down, Pharaoh put down his shovel, and ordered his advisers to count the number of bricks that the Israelites had produced.  That unusually high number became the quota of brick-making that had to be met from that day forward.

In both instances, Pharaoh practices duplicity - he tricks the Israelites into thinking that he is a much nicer guy than he actually is.

The very fact that our rabbis of 2,000 years ago crafted midrashim on this particular aspect of Pharaoh's personality suggests the significance that they attached to duplicity, and the contibuting role that it played in making Pharaoh so very evil.

Okay: am I suggesting that John Mayer is evil, in the grand scheme of things, aside the likes of Pharaoh?  Of course not!  (Although he himself has admitted, after reading the Rolling Stone article, that he would not want to date himself.)

But his story is a reminder to us (just like Pharaoh) of the dangers that are implicit when we trust a celebrity or political leader a little too much.  We must remain ever-skeptical and aware of the fact that just because someone weaves a certain public persona of themselves - that that's not who they actually are.

The recent Tiger Woods soap opera drama is another example.  And so, perhaps, is the recent story about Senator Harry Reid's quasi-racist comments about Barack Obama.   Unfortunately, the reality is that there are far too many examples to mention.

What can we do?  Learn from our celebrities' and politicians' continuing to strive to be as honest and authentic about ourselves to others as we can be.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Earthquakes: Real and Metaphorical

As I write this, the world is just beginning to absorb the scope of the devastation and loss brought on by this week's earthquake in Haiti.  Click here for some eye-opening pictures of the disaster scene, as posted by the United Nations Development Program in Haiti.  According to some news reports, there may be as many as 50,000 dead - and many more homeless.  (This is a blow to a country that has been trying to establish democracy, and improve itself, in recent years.)

Some are asking what they can do to help.  The Department of State is encouraging Americans to donate to the Red Cross via cell phone!  All you have to do is text "HAITI" to "90999" and $10 will automatically be added to your cell phone bill, and the money will go straight to the Red Cross.  (More than $8 million has been raised already!)

The American Jewish community has also set up several funds to accept donations that will then be transferred to Haiti.  Here are just 3 examples:

If you'll permit me, I want to shift gears and spend the rest of this posting on an earthquake of a different sort.

Way back in November, many of us were caught off guard by the story coming out of Jerusalem that Nofrat Frenkel, an Israeli woman who identifies with the Conservative Movement there, WAS ARRESTED FOR WEARING A TALLIT WHILE PRAYING AT THE WESTERN WALL.

I know.  The words sound absurd to me too.

After all: as liberal Jews, we are quite accustomed to having our young women don kippot and tallitot when they celebrate their Bat Mitzvah, and join a community in morning prayer.  (Indeed, in America, there is a whole cottage industry that has sprouted up to supply American Jewish women with so-called "feminine" tallitot and kippot.)

In Israel - not so much.

Because of the hegemonic authority that the Orthodox community wields over Israeli Jews, it has for a long time been extraordinarily difficult for the liberal (i.e. non-Orthodox) Jewish community of Israel (notably, Reform and Conservative Jews) to gain any kind of official recognition and legitimacy from the government (and the Orthodox rabbinate).

Anti-Reform attitudes are documented from at least as early as 1954, when the Reform movement's seminary, Hebrew Union College, (my alma mater) sought to purchase land in Jerusalem for the establishment of a campus and Reform synagogue.  The Orthodox of Jerusalem protested, and successfully delayed the opening of the facility by nine years. 

The presence of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is a threat to the Orthodox on multiple levels.  They represent, for example, an ideological threat - in the sense that Reform and Conservative offer an alternative way of understanding how Judaism can be practiced.  Thus, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism's logo:

The Hebrew reads: "There is more than one way to be a Jew." 

Of course, Reform and Conservative Judaism don't just offer an ideological alternative to Orthodoxy.  They also offer a social one.

This is best illustrated by the non-Orthodox world's embrace of feminism and commitment to egalitarianism (gender equality).

There are things about Reform and Conservative Judaism that you and I take for granted.  Things like mixed-gender seating, and a woman's right to participate equally in Jewish ritual. 

But, from the Orthodox world, these are transgressive ideas - ideas that turn their understanding of Jewish law and culture upside down.

In a world in which the Orthodox of Israel still have the clout to demand buses with separate gender seating (separated by a mechitza or curtain!), you can imagine how Orthodox authorities feel when they see someone like Nofrat Frenkel participating in a prayer service organized by Women of the Wall.

Since Nofrat's arrest, there have been reverberations throughout liberal Jewish circles in Israel.  Anat Hoffman, one of the founders of Women of the Wall, and its current President, was arrested recently.  She was interrogated by police, and threatened with being charged with a felony.  You can read her comments here.

Just as the very real earthquake in Haiti demands action from us, so does the metaphorical one in Israel.

As recent peaceful protests and demonstrations have indicated, the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel and the subsequent questioning of Anat Hoffman could be the tipping point in the ongoing question of religious freedom and women's rights in Israel.

To help, here are three things we can do:

1) Watch the brief video below to better understand the mission of Women of the Wall.

2) Stay informed and up to date on the issues, by familiarizing yourself with the work of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center (coincidentally headed by Anat Hoffman).

3) Sign the petition that IRAC is circulating in its effort to gain public support for Women of the Wall.

Frederick Douglas, the American ex-slave and abolitionist, once wrote that: "It is not light that we need but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder.  We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."

For all of the terrible tragedy wrapped up in these two earthquakes, may they be the impetus that we need to kick us all into action - to help bring a little bit of healing, and hope, to two places in the world that are in desperate need of it.

What are your thoughts?  I'd love to hear what you have to say, about the crisis in Haiti, or the controversy in Israel.  Please post your comments here on the blog, or privately over email.

Shabbat Shalom.