Friday, March 30, 2012

On Reclining

I just recently had my first chance to catch a movie at the new Cinepolis movie theater that opened near my home in La Costa. Yeah - it was more expensive than the typical movie.  BUT IT WAS AWESOME.  If you haven't been to one of these luxury movie places, you should check it out.  It is totally worth the splurge.

By far, the best part of the experience for me was the (reserved) seat.  It was a state of the art leather recliner with easy push button control to extend it from seat to (practically) a 180 degree flat bed.  Combined with the 'eat at your seat' food was like enjoying all of the comforts of watching a movie at home, with the added benefit of catching a first run movie on the big screen in the theater.  The best of both worlds!

In light of the fact that Passover is once again upon us (it begins next Friday night), I couldn't help but remain fixated on the simple luxury of reclining.  For the rabbis who crafted the Passover seder as we know it 2000 years ago, reclining represented the epitome of freedom.  A free person gets to do what they want when they want it (within reason of course).  How better to represent that than with the image of sprawling out, and relaxing?  (And how great is it that the folks of Cinepolis get that!)

Now the kind of reclining that the rabbis have in mind for a Passover seder was very particular: you were supposed to lounge on a floor of padded mattresses.  Passages in the Talmud advise leaning on one side (I believe the left, but don't quote me) because the rabbis thought that there was less of a chance that you'd choke on your food if you were leaning to that side!

But how many of us actually sprawl out on the ground for our seders today?

Today, we eat our formal meals seated around a table.  Lounging on the floor is not generally seen as a socially acceptable option.  Some families that want to keep the religious tradition of lounging alive in the modern context will have everyone sit in formal dining room chairs (or, if your seder is like the ones I attended as a kid: folding chairs!) and add some kind of small pillow or cushion to it to make it feel more "relaxing."

Now, in full disclosure, I've never been to a seder where the host has done this.  But I have been to plenty of crowded seders in my life....and it boggles my mind as to why anyone would think that adding pillows/cushions to an already overly cramped space would make things more comfortable.

If we are serious about wanting to authentically explore the value of reclining at a contemporary seder, I would politely suggest that we all make plans next year to have a La-Z-Boy seder!  Now...I tried to do a search online for a picture to illustrate what I mean....and I came up empty-handed.  The best I can do is ask you to take a close look at the picture below, and then imagine that you had these fancy recliners set up all around your dining room table.  Now that would be a seder!

Or for another fantasy seder set up: Consider this picture of President Obama's conference room aboard Air Force One:

Do you think those chairs recline?!

Well...the reality is that most of us don't get to travel in first class presidential luxury.  We're relegated to coach (where it turns out that there are all sorts of newfangled devices to prevent the seat in front of you from reclining on your knees!).  And I wonder if our own seders are also the equivalent of celebrating in Coach?

Even if it's not realistic to expect to be able to recline in a leather La-Z-Boy around your table next Friday are a few quick suggestions on how you can bring a heightened sense of luxury/splurging to your seder table:
Whether you recline every night or just on seder night....or whether you never recline at all....wishing you and your families a happy, healthy, and meaningful Passover,

Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 23, 2012

Who/What Calls Out to You?

I have been quite distressed about the events that played out in France earlier this week.  If you tuned out from the world over the last few days, then you missed the fact that an Al Qaeda sympathizer (and French citizen of North African descent) shot four Jews (including several children) connected to the Jewish day school in Toulouse, France and three French paratroopers.  The shooter is now dead.  For me the shocking anti-Semitism that sprang forth from this man's fundamentalist Islamic identity is only a tiny bit more disturbing than the fact that a human being would be able to commit this kind of heinous violence in any context.

The incident got me to thinking about the broader philosophical question that asks: where does our morality...our sense of right and wrong...come from?

This week, Jews all over the world begin reading the third book of the Torah: Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus).  Vayikra, the Hebrew name of Leviticus as well as the name of this week's Torah portion, means "He [God] called."

Responding to the fact that the portion opens with the announcement that God specifically called out to Moses, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, founder of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany, suggests that the Torah uses these words to emphasize Divine Authorship of the Torah.  Which is to say that vayikra, to Hirsch, is proof of an actual, direct, personal revelation from God to Moses.  And, for Hirsch and traditional Judaism....that Moses passed the contents of that revelation (i.e. message from God) to the Israelites who.....after a few thousand years ultimately passed it down to us.

For Hirsch and for traditional Judaism: our morality...our sense of right and wrong comes directly from God.  We know that we're not supposed to do X because the Torah says so.  And we know that the Torah is "right" because God authored it.

There are many, many Jews in the world today who embrace that theology.  And not just in Orthodoxy.  There are even some members of our own Reform community who think about the text (and God) in that way.

Although it is my job as a rabbi to respect that view, and to support those whose faith journeys have brought them to that place, I myself cannot embrace that way of thinking about our sacred text, and about God.

Over-venerating a sacred text, and justifying violence out of a belief that a person's sacred text is the 'absolute truth' is in my opinion extraordinarily irresponsible.  It was extraordinarily irresponsible of this Muslim fanatic in France (whose name I cannot bring myself to type here) in exactly the same way that it was extraordinarily irresponsible of someone like Baruch Goldstein to massacre innocent Arabs or for Yigal Amir to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin.  Goldstein and Amir, both so-called observant Jews, believed that their interpretations of Judaism justified their respective acts of violence.

There is, of course, a wide wide gulf between a person who believes that Scripture was authored by God, and a person who uses that belief to justify acts of violence.  Nonetheless, for me, there is a certain danger even in believing that the text was divinely authored...because it brings us that much closer to the slippery slope of authorizing violence in the name of God/tradition.

(I hope some of you will disagree with me on this point!  Would love to hear from you about it.)

But let's say you agree with me...that the Torah was not authored by God.  Where does that leave us?  What is the source of our morality?  If we do not believe that God authored the text, then what makes the Torah special?  And if it is not 'special', then how/why should we rely on it more for moral guidance than any of the other great texts of our Homer or Shakespeare?

I wish that this blog posting gave me the space to begin answering that central question!  There are so many different answers that modern Judaism offers to it....answers from thinkers whose names are Buber and Rosenzweig and Kaplan - Jewish philosophers who 'privileged' the Bible because it is the sacred text handed down by our people....but who did not 'over-privilege it' - by presuming divine authorship.

Anyone who cares about their Jewish identity outside of an Orthodox context should be spending more time studying these thinkers!  But in the meantime, I want to turn the tables and ask you: Who/What Calls Out to You?  How are you guided in the moral choices that you make every day?  How do you distinguish between right and wrong?  Are your choices based on words that are printed in a book (Bible or otherwise)?  Are they based on values that a role model taught you?  Are they based on a set of rules that you/your conscience deduced for yourself?  On this week in which we celebrate vayikra, Who/What Calls Out to You?

I'd love to hear your always.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 16, 2012

An Ode to Rest

Although my wife would go livid if she read this, I'm going to put myself out there and proclaim that I yearn to be more of a couch potato than I already am.  Ah...if I could take out my magic wand, and make the demands of young children and of my job go away...I could just wile the day away: on my sofa watching bad television, or on a lounge chair with an engrossing novel.  I wish that I had more time in my life to do absolutely nothing.

There's a part of me that feels incredibly guilty about sharing that.  I mean....the American society that we live in today brainwashes us into thinking that resting is bad.  We have been led to believe that the less productive we are, the less self worth we have.  We see this in the working world, where American corporate culture rewards employees that work the most hours and take the least vacation.  And we see this in the parenting world, where we (consciously or unconsciously) start padding our kids resumes as early as preschool to make sure that they are as prepared as possible to get into Harvard.  (As the parent of a five and a half year old, I'm living this right now.  Am I a bad parent because my kindergartner isn't in seven extra-curricular activities and hasn't mastered Japanese yet?)

Thankfully, our own Jewish tradition offers us an antidote to all of this pressure, and it's found in this week's double Torah portion (Parshat Vayakheil-Pekudei).  The parsha opens with a seeming contradiction: the text has Moses gathering the people together....and then after that brief introduction there's a verse or two about observing Shabbat....and then the text launches into a long section about the most important work project contained in the Torah: the building of the Tent of Meeting.  The question is: why would the Torah juxtapose the section about the building of the Tent with a passage about the observance of Shabbat?

A number of our teachers (including Rashi) have argued that the reason is to make it crystal clear to us that...even when it comes to the most important work that the Israelites were asked to do (build the Tent), we should not be distracted into thinking that that work is most important than the observance of Shabbat.  The parsha is clear: resting on Shabbat always trumps the other work that we are supposed to be doing in our lives.

The terms 'rest' and 'work' are loaded ones in the Jewish legal tradition.  I am not sitting here arguing for a rigorous Orthodox observance of Shabbat and the outmoded definitions of 'work' that come with it. 

But I do think that the spirit of the passage is incredibly relevant to the way that we live our lives today.  To put it loosely: our tradition believes that...for at least one day a week...we should all become couch potatoes!

By "doing" less, we "become" more.

It's a simple philosophical approach to life, and it is the opposite of the one that our American culture would have us believe.

Judaism believes that by taking care of ourselves...of our bodies and our resting (however we each define that)...that we can become more productive during the rest of the week. I can't tell Amy that the Torah encourages me to be a couch potato all the time.  But it definitely encourages me to be a couch potato some of the time.

There are so many different ways to rest in this day and spending quality time with friends or doing leisure activities that we never permit ourselves to do the rest of the week...on top of all of those, I really want to encourage everyone to check out the material at  We would all do well to take their advice!

What do you think about the idea of working a little less and resting a little more?  How do you unplug and give yourself the space to re-charge?  I'd love to hear from you...

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 9, 2012

Purim 2012

The holiday of Purim: the one day on the calendar in which we are permitted to go crazy and have a good time....we dress up in costume...drink a little alcohol....laugh at a few jokes, and celebrate the fact that one maniacal anti-Semite after another has tried (and failed) to destroy the Jewish People throughout history.

Click here for everything you ever wanted to know about Purim.

When it comes to food on Purim, it all comes down to the hamantaschen.  Three recipes worth trying out this weekend and all year round!

1) The Traditionalist (you'll have to let me know how it is; I have an aversion to prunes!)

2) The Contemporary Alternative - this recipe for hamantaschen filled with chocolate filling (yum) comes from Vered Guttman, one of the food writers for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

3) The Radical Newcomer - who says hamantaschen just have to be for dessert?  This recipe is savory and can be served as an entree or side dish during a meal.  (We're trying it tonight for our Shabbat dinner...stay tuned!)

The great paradox of Purim is that it is both ridiculously silly, and deadly serious.

For your dose of silliness, check out the annual Purim website that the major American Jewish newspaper the Forward  puts up.  They call it the BackwardGet it?  If the parodies there (check out the review of the Bar Mitzvah) don't make you smile, consider watching the 2006 movie For Your Consideration: by far the best (only?) mainstream American movie about Purim ever made!  You can rent it on YouTube for only $1.99!

And for your dose of seriousness, do read Rabbi Daniel Gordis' sobering column today in the Jerusalem Post about the chasm that continues to divide Israelis and Palestinians.

Wishing you all a belatedly festive, joyous, and thought-provoking Purim,
Rabbi Brown