Monthly Archives: August 2013

struggle or stroll redux

here is an article that delves into the topic of my post from yesterday:  http://forward.com/articles/182461/when-judaism-is-all-about-you/

ask not what our faith has done for us, but rather what we have done for our faith

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August 19, 2013 · 3:24 pm

Finding Faith – a Struggle or a Stroll?

I just uploaded a photo of the ‘faith’ section in the book store at Bethany Beach.  There are a few Bible versions on the shelves, a book about Jesus, and a couple of other ‘self-help’ style books.  If you look closely you can see at the center of the section a copy of ‘the Secret’, which is a book that promises with a few easy steps a sense of peace, calm, and spiritual enlightenment.  This book has been a major best seller – how many copies have been sold, I don’t know exactly, but the total is in the millions.

This is representative of a modern trend vis a vis faith.  That is to say, folks want faith served to them in easy to digest portions, the sweeter and more palatable the better.  Make it easy, make it about good vibes and few demands, and people are ready, receptive, and responsive.  

There is another idea, older and more traditional, about what faith should be and how it is to be engaged in.  This approach understands faith as being difficult, challenging, demanding, a struggle every step of the way.  There is no such thing as a true secret.  But there is the possibility of a lifetime of study.  God is not warm, fuzzy, loving, caring, embracing;  instead God is demanding, inscrutable, difficult.  Faith is not a walk in the park on a sunny day.  It is a quest, arduous at times, a test of the soul and spirit, with opportunity for growth of soul and a deeper understanding of self.  It is not easy  – nor are any of the most worthwhile things of life – relationships, success, creativity, parenting.  The Mishnah refers to the quest for faith as מלאכה – work!  Maybe that is the real secret!

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the ‘faith’ section at Bethany Beach Books

the 'faith' section at Bethany Beach Books

Note at the center of the faith section @ Bethany Beach Books is a copy of ‘the Secret,’ a book that promises an easy path to en enlightened and satisfied life. I would rather see a copy of ‘Lonely Man of Faith,’ the masterpiece by Joseph Soloveitchik.

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August 18, 2013 · 10:10 pm

Speech to Silence

I love sleeping with the windows open, although in Baltimore it rarely happens because the summers are generally so hot.  It reminds me of when I was growing up, in Binghamton NY, a much cooler climate.  My bedroom was on the third floor of the house, my bed right next to two large windows, a big oak tree right outside.  On summer nights, with those windows open, I almost felt like I was sleeping up in that old tree, its leaves blowing in the breeze.

Last night it was quite cool here in Baltimore, so we had the windows open in the bedroom.  As I was falling asleep I could hear two large frogs calling to each other.  One would croak, then the other, back and forth, back and forth.  It was so loud I was considering closing the windows to keep out the sound, but feel asleep, dreams of High Holy Day sermons in my head.

I woke up about two in the morning.  Lying in bed and listening, I realized it was totally quiet.  The frogs had stopped their calling, no crickets chirping, not a noise.  The distinction caught my attention.  From sound to silence, from noise to nothing.  

It reminded me of the Jack Miles book “God A Biography.”  He traces God’s character in the Hebrew Bible, and in part discovers that God gets quieter and quieter as the Bible goes on.  The God of Genesis speaks all the time.  The God of Exodus speaks, and also is a God of action.  But then a God who slowly but surely becomes silent.  In the Book of Job God speaks for the last time in the Bible.  In the book of Esther God doesn’t even appear.   

I wonder if the editor of the Bible, the person (or people) who put the final version of the text together, was reflecting in this his own experience of God.  Perhaps he knew a quiet God, a God you listen for in the middle of the night but rarely if ever hear.  Subtly, carefully, delicately, he reflected that sense of God as he structured what would become known as the Greatest Story Ever Told.  

Of course we still listen and look, all these years later.  Even if we don’t hear, we sense, we feel.  There are moments when our souls are called.  A vision at the edge of our sight, a soft murmuring sound as we fall asleep.  If we pause to look or listen, it is gone. But the echo stays with us.

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Sacred Moments

An addendum to yesterday’s post about life cycle events.  The truth is all of these moments, whether celebratory or sad, whether connected to the beginning, middle, or end of life, are sacred.  That is why people want their faith tradition to have structures they can use to engage in those moments.  As human beings we can reasonably ask the question “how can I do this thing I need to do?”  How can I join my fate to the fate of another person I love?  How can I say goodbye to a person who has been in my life forever?  How can I enter my child into an ancient covenant?  

On the surface the questions seem overwhelming, but Judaism has an answer – in fact, a precise answer – to each and every one of them.  Judaism will tell you, step by step, exactly what you need to do and say so that this enormously important event in your life, in the life of your family, can be navigated.  I know that people find this helpful, because after weddings, funerals, baby namings, brises, they will thank me, and they are truly grateful.  NOT for something I did or said, but for the simple fact that I guided them through that moment using the tradition as the path.

One last thought.  Judaism long ago did away with the role of the shaman, the one who is the intermediary between this world and another world where God dwells.  When the Temple was standing, that was the role of the Priest.  Only he could do what he did.  But the rabbis, when creating Rabbinic Judaism (the Judaism of today) did away with that.  There is no ritual in Judaism that requires a rabbi.  Not a wedding or a funeral.  Not the leading of services.  Nothing.  This was a true democratization of religion.  You needed one thing to facilitate the ‘magic moments.’  What was it?  Knowledge, available to anyone willing to look for it.

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A rabbi’s Sunday (Sunday the rabbi…worked!)

My schedule yesterday:  9 AM unveiling, 10 AM unveiling (2 different cemeteries);  11:30 vow renewal ceremony;  12:30 meeting with a conversion candidate;  2 PM funeral;  5:30 wedding.  A long day by any measure, with a variety of emotional highs and lows.  The wedding was terrific – lovely, joyful, elegant.  The funeral a true celebration of a long and well lived life.  The unveilings are often surprisingly hard – I think it is just difficult having to come back to the cemetery, revisiting the loss, having to confront it so directly.

One worry every rabbi has – getting a name wrong!  When you have a series of life cycle events stacked up, one after another, each one with a different family, you are juggling many names – not just the name of one person, or two people (bride and groom), but their families as well.  People joke ‘make sure you don’t give the eulogy at the wedding.’  Could you imagine?  Under the Huppah, with the couple, you take out the wrong piece of paper:  dear family and friends, we gather here today to remember the long and well lived life.. Oy!!  The truth is rabbis use a lot of stickie notes.  Even if I know a person well, or a family well, I will keep stickie notes with the correct name/names in my rabbi’s manual.  

Of course the other challenge is keeping emotionally engaged and connected.  I have had Sundays with four unveilings, one after the other, on the hour.  Days with multiple funerals (on a number of occasions three in one day).  Days with multiple weddings.  The ritual element does not change (that is what makes it a ritual!), so each explanation is essentially the same, you might be saying the same words two, three, or more times in a single day.  You need to be ‘present’ for the family, not thinking about the next thing you have to run to.

I remember one particularly challenging Sunday, a number of years ago.  Two unveilings, a wedding in the middle of the day, and two funerals.  After the last funeral, at the end of that long day, I was walking from the grave to go back to my car.  Not paying much attention to where I was going, suddenly there was a large tombstone right in front of me.  I looked up at it, and what was the family name, inscribed there in the stone?  You guessed it – Schwartz.  And they say God doesn’t have a sense of humor! 

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Snowden and Manning – Prophets or Traitors?

A text of my sermon from last Shabbat.  Given the President’s remarks this afternoon at his news conference, it seems clear that Snowden’s actions, whether right or wrong, are bringing positive change to the process – 

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August 9, 2013 · 8:27 pm