Friday, February 24, 2012

Big Tent Judaism

The Jewish Outreach Institute, a wonderful organization devoted to enabling Jewish orgs be as welcoming as possible to interfaith families, brands its approach by using the imagery of a 'big tent.'   But there's a 'Big Tent Judaism' of a different sort on display in this week's Torah portion (Parshat Terumah).  I am speaking, of course, about the parsha's obsession with all things related to the construction of the Tent of Meeting....the portable structure that our ancestors constructed in order to have a place to encounter God during their travels through the wilderness.  (Click here for the results of a Google Images search re the Tent of Meeting, though keep in mind that some of these images come from Christian organizations who also find meaning in the Tent, and whose interpretation is potentially different from our own.)

I bring all of this up as background, because I think that we can't really evaluate the meaning of this part of the Torah's narrative without asking ourselves the central question: WHAT IS THE POINT OF THE TENT?

I know....I just wrote that the Tent was a place for our ancestors to encounter God in.  But anyone who has studied anything about Jewish theology knows that we believe that God is omnipresent.  If that's the case, why do we need a particular structure (or building) to "meet" God in?  More importantly why does the Omnipresent One need a mishkan (the Hebrew word for the Tent that can alternatively be translated as a "dwelling place")?

Our rabbis have suggested different answers to these questions over the centuries.  Today, I want to share with you one from mid 20th century America.  Rabbi Jacob Weinstein (of Chicago) once wrote that: "Our sages believed that the building of holy places, the exercise of piety, prepares the heart for godliness.  People who build synagogues [or spend time in them] are more likely to feel the spirit of holiness, the mood of sanctity."

Weinstein seems to admit that we absolutely can find God at the beach, or on the mountaintop....but: that our 'best chance' of finding/encountering God's Holy Presence is within the walls of the synagogue.

This is the essential question I'd like us to examine this Shabbat: does space matter?

Do the settings that we find ourselves in have anything to do with how meaningful an inner spiritual life we'll be able to have?  And, more importantly, should we privilege the space of the synagogue above all others when it comes to considering the most spiritual spaces in Judaism?  (FYI, my colleagues at definitely wouldn't!)

Do you feel different (Jewishly) about yourself when you spend time in a synagogue?  Specifically when you're at Temple Solel?  Why/why not?

Although the Biblical Author might never have imagined it - it turns out that these questions are also directly relevant as movie-lovers everywhere celebrate the Oscars this weekend!  Click here to read about the ongoing trend of declining movie ticket sales.  One reason for that is that so many of us are perfectly comfortable staying at home and watching movies on our large flat screen TVs (with surround sound, etc.).  Think about this: is there something qualitatively different/better about watching a movie in the theater than watching it at home?

The Torah thinks that there is.  The attention to detail that the Torah gives to the instructions for the building of the Tent of Meeting suggests that space matters....that how we experience the world depends in large part on the settings that we find ourselves in.  Magic and memories (spiritual or cinematic), according to the Torah, can't just happen anywhere. 

What do you think? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts publicly here on the blog, tweeting @RabbiJBrown, or privately over email.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, February 17, 2012

Make Love Not War

For those that have been living in a cave over the last few weeks, you might have missed the furor that exploded in Washington regarding the Obama Administration's initial proposal that - with the exception of health plans offered by houses of worship to their employees - all other health plans in the country would have to include complimentary contraceptives.

The proposal caused outrage among the leadership of the American Catholic community (and in other circles), not only regarding the substance of the proposal, but also out of concern for possible church-state infringement.  There are many religious institutions in this country that are not houses of worship (think seminaries, hospitals, and community centers) who are still, for example, affiliated with the Catholic Church.  Under the original proposal, all of those institutions would on some level have been mandated to 'provide' contraceptives to covered employees who requested it.

President Obama, seeking a compromise, suggested that it would be possible for individuals to still receive contraceptives at no charge, without any financial obligation falling on the employee.  Religious communities could opt out as a matter of conscience, and the government would then direct insurance companies to pick up the tab for the contraceptives.

The debate remains unresolved at this point, and I'll leave the politics of it all to others to sort out.  But this does seem like the perfect time to write a few words about the Jewish perspective on contraceptives, which in my humble opinion are a perfectly kosher component of healthy family planning, and avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

It's worth quoting what my teacher, Dr. Mark Washofsky, writes about this subject in his important book on contemporary Reform Jewish life entitled Jewish Living:
According to Jewish tradition, it is a mitzvah, a religious duty, to have children.  Yet tradition recognizes that there are times when a couple might justifiably not be prepared to have children or to increase the size of their family, and it acknowledges that sexual intercourse within marriage carries a value of its own even when it does not and cannot lead to procreation.  For these reasons, Jewish law permits the use of birth control methods, including some artificial contraceptives, under these circumstances.
Reform Judaism respects the right of parents to determine how many children they shall have, although we emphasize that bringing Jewish children into the world remains a special mitzvah and encourage couples to consider the matter of family size carefully and with due regard to the problem of Jewish survival.  We discourage such permanent methods of birth control as sterilization and vasectomy.  (Page 242, 2001 edition)
From my vantage point: contraceptives are not just for "sexual intercourse within marriage."  We're living in a day and age where the average age of (first) marriage for men is 28.  Women are, on average, 26. If you look at historical trends, those numbers are definitely on the rise.  All of which is a long way of saying - what I know I don't have to tell anyone who is reading this blog - that Americans are not waiting until marriage to have sex.

Which means that it is all the more important to insure that contraceptive devices (be they condoms, birth control pills, etc.) be made available to those that want or need them.  Although our Jewish values teach us an incredible humility when it comes to how we should treat a fetus....And I do believe that that humility should encourage us to work together to minimize the number of abortions that are performed in the world...Nonetheless, I do not believe that Judaism encourages unwanted pregnancies.  What good can come from a parent carrying to term a child that they know they don't want, and won't have the ability to love/raise?  (Unless the parents are committed up front to putting the child up for adoption.)

Part of what it means to be a Jewishly responsible lover is to talk through these issues with your partner before you get into bed together.  What would we do if we unexpectedly got pregnant?  If we don't want to get pregnant, how are we going to prevent that from happening?  Is it the man's responsibility or the woman's to take care of this?  These are incredibly hard conversations to have....especially for those who are younger (or perhaps just less mature).  Nonetheless, our Jewish ethics REQUIRE that you be talking about this with your partner.  To skip these hard conversations is to be terribly irresponsible.

What do you think about all this?  How, if at all, does the Jewish approach to birth control shape your own thinking and/or choices about family planning and intimacy?

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts: privately over email, publicly here on the blog, or on Twitter @RabbiJBrown.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Car

Earlier this week, the Federal Reserve released economic data relating to the nation's reliance on loans/credit during the month of December.  According to the report, Americans used 9.3% more credit in December, which was preceded by an increase of 9.9% in November!  According to the government, this was the biggest two month rise in more than a decade.

As with any economic report, there are always at least two way to interpret the data.  On the one hand, this new and marked increase in spending and borrowing on the part of Americans could indicate a real uptick in consumer confidenceApparently, 70% of the country's GDP is made up of consumer according to this theory, the increase borrowing and spending is a good thing.  The more money we spent on cars and TVs, the stronger our economy will become.

Or, as our rabbis say, dvar acher: a completely different interpretation: what if these numbers are frighteningly scary?  What if the increased borrowing numbers indicate that Americans are tired of cutting back and saving responsibly (as they had been doing for most of the recent recession), and that....instead....the numbers indicate that we are irresponsibly relying on credit cards to buy things that we might not actually be able to afford right now?  This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that growth in consumer spending noticeably outpaces growth in personal incomes right now.  We are spending money that we don't exactly have.

Now, I'm all for consumer spending and the positive impact that the former interpretation might augur for our country!  But I do think that this week's Torah portion (Parshat Yitro) does give us a chance to pause and reflect on the questions surrounding the latter interpretation - so that's where I'll be concentrating my energies in this posting.

This week's Torah portion includes the giving of the Ten Commandments.  And I am always taken by the relevance of the Tenth Commandment....the prohibition against coveting.

Our rabbis spend a lot of time debating if coveting happens the moment we lust after an object that doesn't belong to us....or if coveting only happens once we actually give in to our desires and acquire the object.  (I'll be exploring that question in a little more depth during my sermon at Solel tomorrow morning.)

But in the meantime....I think we can all agree that greed and envy are dangerously unhealthy things.  In the words of Rabbeinu Yonah of 13th century Spain: "For the one that covets - all his days are filled with pain, as if the fire of his desire burns in his heart every single day.  And so he shall know no peace."

Greedy envy, or covetousness, is something that we are all in danger of falling victim to.  If we mistakenly indulge those feelings of desire....we run the risk of being mentally and spiritually consumed....we'll never be grateful or satisfied with what we have.  We'll always want more, more, more.

How much of that is reflected in this week's economic data?  Do you think that the numbers indicating Americans' increased use of credit cards is a sign of our society's materialistic envy?  I'd love to hear you thoughts...

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tweeting the Miracle of the Exodus

This Shabbat, Jews from around the world will be reading from Parshat Beshallach.  Part of the significance of the parsha is that there is a long standing custom to designate the Shabbat of Parshat Beshallach as "Shabbat Shirah" - the Shabbat of Song.  This is the one Shabbat (in particular) in which we celebrate Jewish music....because that was exactly the way our ancestors celebrated after successfully crossing the Sea to safety from the Egyptians (as told in this week's portion).

Regarding the notion of celebrating through song...our rabbis once asked: why is it that singing was the default way that our ancestors utilized to praise God?  They could have praised by making sacrificial offerings, or by organizing the biblical version of a charitable fundraising drive.  But instead: they sang!  Why?

Our rabbis teach us that they learned of the power of song by listening to the tweeting of the birds during their enslavement in Egypt.  All day, every day...amidst the hard manual labor that our ancestors had to endure...they listened to the tweeting and the singing of the birds.  And, on some level, that singing....that pure unadulterated praise of God gave the Israelites the hope that they needed to carry on in the midst of their labors.  Thus Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov (20th century Poland and Israel) suggests that our ancestors' Song of the Sea was not just a praise to God - but also a tribute to the tweeting of the birds.

Given the importance that our tradition places on tweeting this Shabbat, it seemed like the logical time for me to finally get around to opening a Twitter account!  I want to invite all who are interested to follow me @RabbiJBrown.  Maybe this will be the week that you'll be motivated to join Twitter as well!   Just click on  I'll look forward to "meeting you" online.

Shabbat Shalom.