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.