Monthly Archives: November 2013

What is Better? Thanksgiving AND Hanukkah or Thanksgiving OR Hanukkah?

Much has been made of this year’s coincidence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving.  This (extremely) rare event is brought about by a very late Thanksgiving (November 28th!) and a very early Hanukkah.  Calendrical pundits are telling us this won’t happen again for some 70 thousand years.  But, of course, the one question my father in law would ask is this:  is it good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews?

My general preference with Hanukkah is to keep it distinct – from Christmas.  The fact that the two holidays commonly fall around the same time of year, that both involve the giving of presents and the bringing of light into the home, has created a sort of Hanukkah vs. Christmas scenario over the years, and the simple fact is that Hanukkah can’t win that fight.  Christmas has become a holiday version of the NFL, while Hanukkah at the end of the day is still one of the least important Jewish holidays, not even mentioned in the Bible.  So I prefer it when Hanukkah quietly comes and goes, we light our candles, eat our latkes, exchange a few gifts, and pack it up for another year.  Once we’re done Christmas can roll in and be what it has become, and we don’t have to compete.

But somehow Thanksgiving feels different, and perhaps this is why the coming together of the holidays – now called Thanksgivikkuh – has clearly captured people’s imagination.  First of all the narratives are eerily similar.  Both festivals tell the tale of persecution and a struggle for freedom.  Both are food centric holidays, Thanksgiving because it recalls an actual meal eaten by the Pilgrims, Hanukkah because – well, because it is a Jewish holiday, and therefore must be food centered (come on, even Yom Kippur, a fast day, revolves around the break fast!).  Both holidays also acknowledge that although we pray for God’s help, at the end of the day we make our own luck.  The Maccabees didn’t wait for a miracle, they in a sense made their own miracle.  We might say the same about the Pilgrims.  And of course there is the simple theme of gratitude – that we live in a great nation where we are free to worship in any way that we choose, that we have, as we Jews say, ‘what to eat,’ that the State of Israel exists today, that America has truly been a place where the disenfranchised, persecuted, and underprivileged have found a home, and been able to thrive (the story of both the Pilgrims and the Jews coming to these shores).  

So I’m cool with Thanksgivikkuh, or whatever you want to call it.  In fact, I’m even enjoying it.  I might as well – after all, it won’t happen again for another 70 thousand years or so.

Happy Hanukkah!  Happy Thanksgiving!

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A ‘post-rabbinic’ Judaism?

Not in the sense that you might think.  Or maybe both.  The recent news that a prominent Detroit congregation’s ‘rabbi’ resigned after it was discovered she actually had no formal ordination was on the surface shocking.  She had served the congregation for years, was well known and beloved in the community, and had officiated at hundreds and hundreds of weddings, baby namings, funerals.  Two questions immediately come to mind.  First, how could she deceive the congregation in this way?  And secondly, how could the congregation let itself be deceived?

In a sense both questions are easier to answer than you might think.  A growing ‘secret’ in congregational life these days is that congregations are less and less invested in where a rabbinical candidate’s ordination comes from.  The time when Reform congregations hired rabbis ordained at HUC and Conservative congregations hired rabbis ordained at JTS are over.  Today there are ‘liberal’ rabbinical schools in LA, in Boston, in Philadelphia, as well as online programs from various organizations, and the truth is congregations don’t really care where their rabbi’s ordination is from.  If the congregation likes the rabbi, if the rabbi seems competent (no great feat in the rabbinate these days), and the rabbi is ordained from somewhere, that is enough for many shuls.  What happened in Detroit is a case in point.  The ‘rabbi’ told the congregations she was studying for ordination in a place which is not nationally known or recognized, and that was enough for them.  Had she simply followed through on her plans the story wouldn’t be in the news today.  This despite the fact that her ordination would have come through ALEPH, a distance learning program run through the Renewal Movement that would not have been recognized as a proper rabbinical school even a few years ago.

That leaves the question of how she could deceive the congregation she was serving.  We should first acknowledge that there is some self-deception at work here.  She was playing the role, and playing it well, and I am sure in her mind it was justified.  She also probably intended to follow through with the online ordination, but as so often happens, life gets in the way.  If you think about it, this is something we’re seeing more and more often, from various walks of life – in academia, in coaching and education.  In the end it is not that surprising after all – she wanted it to be true, the congregation wanted it to be true, and that was – almost – enough.  

Maybe in a few years it actually will be enough.  We will see what happens as more and more rabbinical figures with ordinations from a wide variety of institutions make their way into the American liberal Jewish community.  It seems for now their are still limits, still requirements, and the symbolism of an ‘ordained rabbi’ still has some power.  But in today’s rapidly changing Jewish world, there is no guarantee that ideal will hold firm in the future.  As the ancient Chinese proverb says:  you should be blessed (or is it cursed) to live in interesting times.

here is a link to an article about the above:

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Bedside Table

Bedside Table

My current bedside table – dogeared copies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the JPS English Tanakh are the top two books, resting on a Siddur Rinat Yisrael. Underneath them a copy of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with an article about the play by one of my favorite Shakespeare critics Marjorie Garber. In the foreground of the picture you can see a Hebrew copy of the Tanakh and a siddur.

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November 24, 2013 · 4:13 pm

He Is A 10! (what ever happened to Bo Derek?)

We are a culture of ‘raters.’  We love to take a movie, or a book, or school, or whatever it might be, and rate it with a numerical value judgement, commonly a 1-10 scale.  When we take surveys we are encouraged to to do this (please rate, on a 1-5 scale, 1 being least…). I know that this rating system gets applied to sermons sometimes.  In my house my children will rate a sermon I gave, usually right at the Shabbat lunch table, in front of me, and I can tell you I generally don’t do well.  On that 1-10 scale a 5 is high, and I am often relegated to the 2s and 3s.  If I mention the kids in the sermon, I might get up to 7, or even an 8.  I’ve never been given a 10, the perfect score.

An article in this morning’s NY Times brought to my attention a new ‘app’ that I had not heard of before.  It is called lulu, and creates a social media space for women to rate men on a variety of qualities.  The app then uses an algorithm to generate a number on the 1-10 scale to assign to that particular man.  Evidently women are using this app left and right, and one estimate indicated that %70 of women under the age of 40 in the New York area use it regularly.  I understand the revenge factor.  The app gives women a chance to do to men what men have done to them for too long.  Remember that Dudley Moore movie from the 70s?

But there is a danger in this as well, for all of us.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that one person gathers what another person spills.  That is to say, one person who hears a sermon might give it a 9, while another, hearing the same sermon, might only give it a 2.  Why?  Because everyone is different.  Just because one person rates another at number x doesn’t mean that you’ll agree with it.  Her 3 might be your 8, his 10 might be your 4.  That is just human nature.  As the Romans famously said, there is no accounting for taste.  So why see someone through the eyes of others?  Find out for yourself – that is the only way you’ll truly know what you think of someone (or something, for that matter). 

That being said, Judaism in general would frown on this type of rating system.  One of the dangers of the internet is that it makes it easy to spread information, whether that information is accurate or not.  In the old days gossip had to work its way from person to person to person.  Today one person, via the internet, can gossip to hundreds, even thousands of people all at the same time.  Judaism has long considered gossip to be a violation of others, and hence strongly forbidden.  We all struggle with that commandment, but that is why it exists!  

At the end of the day I suppose Lulu will fade away, like so many other internet fads.  But while it is so popular it might behoove us to think of how it really works, what it really does, and the way it can really affect people’s lives.  After all, did Bo Derek ever appear in another movie?

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Requiem or Renewal?

Rabbi Danny Gordis’ recent article ‘Requiem for a Movement’ ( has raised the ire of Conservative rabbis across the country.  There is a feeling that Gordis, who left the Conservative Movement some two decades ago, is taking pot shots at his old friends while they are down.  I was a student of Danny’s when he was making the transition from Conservative Judaism to Orthodoxy, and it was clearly an internal struggle for him – the intellectual rigor and integrity of the place where he had grown up, with all of its pitfalls, versus a new (for him) place which would give his family an observant community and layers of insulation from the secular/non-observant world.  Where he would finally land seemed clear to us at the time, and the added layer of protection found in Israel was the last piece in the puzzle of his journey.  His move to Israel was an indication that he did not believe Jewish life in America was ultimately viable, and his move to Orthodoxy illustrated his sense that Conservative Judaism was a sinking ship, at least for the kind of Jewish life he wanted to be involved in.

The results of the recent Pew Study on American Jewish life seem to support the ‘chush’  that Danny had 20 plus years ago.  We don’t need to go back through the particular statistics.  Suffice it to say that they painted a grim picture of liberal American Jewish life in general and the Conservative Movement in particular.  Danny’s ‘Requiem’ article builds off of the Pew Study, and with his usual insightful analysis he offers a critique of the Movement that he grew up in.  I won’t summarize it here, but it is worthwhile reading, and mostly (in my opinion) spot on.

That being said, what he writes is not a ‘chiddush,’ a never before thought of insight.  Instead the issues he points out have long been of concern to the Movement and its leadership (diminishing affiliation, watered down Hebrew school education, dwindling service attendance, etc).  The question, of course, is what can we do about it?  In Gordis’ view, it is too late for the Movement to save itself, reversing the trends that the study has revealed.  The facts are in, the Conservative conversation is over, and the door is closing.  End of story.

In a round about way Gordis actually suggests a solution in the last section of his ‘Requiem.’  He wonders what would have happened if… the Movement had stuck to higher standards, the Movement had been more demanding in terms of observance and education, the Movement had more energetically addressed issues of deeper meaning in people’s lives.  Of course what would have happened we will never know, but I wonder if the Conservative Movement Danny Gordis imagines is one where he would have felt comfortable, but many of our ‘Jews in the pews’ would have been like fish out of water.  For he does not, in his analysis, address the underlying trends that the Pew Study identified – the growing percentage of ‘nones’ in the Jewish community and general community (nones are those not wanting to have any religious affiliation);  the increasingly popular view among younger Jews that they are proud to be ethnically Jewish, but that they don’t want to express that religiously;  the focus that younger Jews have on Jewish values like justice and moral living and intellectual curiosity.  It seems to me what the study really points to is a growing group of Jews who want to feel Jewish, be Jewish, think Jewish, but not DO Jewish, at least in the way people have done Jewish for the last 75 years.

The question for Conservative Judaism is what to do about that?  How can we connect with those folks, how can we give them what they want, but at the same time maintain some sense of integrity?  Some of this can be worked out on a macro level, with individual rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders coming together within congregations to create a ‘millennial’ Judaism.  But on the macro level we can only go so far.  It is time for the Movement to write a collective response to the Gordis Requiem – I would suggest the title From Requiem to Renewal.  This ‘essay’ must be written by the Movement’s best and brightest, its most creative minds.  Because as a pulpit rabbi, I can only go so far.  At a certain point, the Movement needs to step in, and lead the way.  And not with discussions of various and sundry halachic issues, because as Gordis correctly points out, that will get us no where.

Instead, the conversation needs to be about big issues.  Redefining Jewish identity.  Recreating davening.  Reassessing what Conservative Judaism means and what Conservative Jewish life should be about.  Lets start fresh – after all, at this point what do we have to lose?  And besides, isn’t that what renewal is all about?


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A Star Trek Minyan

Space, the final frontier.  If you grew up during the late 60s and 70s that is a phrase that is familiar to you from Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series.  in almost every episode there was a scene where Captain Kirk would conduct a crucial conversation, often with a villain, via the huge ‘flat screen’ video monitor at the front of the bridge of the Enterprise.  Back in the day it looked so… well, so science fiction.  How could you ever, in real time, talk with someone via video?  Let alone the size of that screen!

Of course today we live in an age when video chatting has become common.  Everyone with an iPhone can ‘FaceTime.’  Everyone else uses Skype, from the oldest to the youngest (in fact often grandparents talk with their grandchildren via Skype).  And now we all have huge flat screen video monitors in our living rooms and dens.  My oh my, the more things change the more they stay the same. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would be quite comfortable with our modern technology.

But would the rabbis of old?  Jews have been quick to adopt cutting edge technologies.  The Talmud was available on a CD Rom (remember those?) early on.  Smartphones have minyan apps that tell you where the closest service is being held, and even give you the siddur text right on your phone screen.  Of course Shabbat is a problem, and most of those apps won’t work on Saturday (they also deserve a day of rest!).  And the question of how a minyan can be formally constituted is still an open one.  Can people make a ‘virtual’ minyan, skyping or facetiming with one another from remote locations to make the required 10?

Often the Jewish legal literature has been uncomfortable with this.  A tradition as old as Judaism still wants real people in a real place.  But I had an experience Sunday night that made me think about the entire issue differently.  I went to conduct a shiva minyan for a family that had lost its wife/mother.  The widower, just after the funeral, needed to check in to the hospital.  But the shiva was at his home.  How could he participate in this ritual?  His son is a technophile, and hooked up an iPod in his father’s hospital room and one in the room in the shiva house where the minyan was to be held.  Before the service, people sat in a chair in the shiva house and video chatted with the widower.  When the service started, he could see from his hospital bed, through the iPod, his son and me, conducting the service, and he could hear all of the participants.  He had a siddur with him, wore a kippah, and had two friends, also with prayer books, in his room.  He participated in the service.  When we said shema, he said it with us.  Most importantly, when his son stood to say the words of the kaddish, he could say the kaddish as well, seeing his son, and saying the words with him, sharing together in the loss they have suffered.  

Whether this truly one day will count as a minyan for that widower or not, only the halachists can say.  But I can tell you this.  In his mind, that widower had fully participated in the shiva service for his wife.  I also suspect that all those who were at the house, on the other end of that video/audio conduit, felt he had as well.  And one last thing I would say about it – without question in my mind, all the way around, it was a mitzvah.

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Sharing Sunrise

One of the advantages of being an early riser and a dog owner is that you get to see a lot of sunrises.  Most mornings (especially this time of year) I am already outside when the sun is coming up, walking my pooch as he snuffles is way through the neighborhood.  This morning there was an unusually beautiful sunrise – streaks of red and gold in the sky, reflecting the colors of any leaves left in the trees, with the palest blue sky in between, the day ‘becoming’ in front of my very eyes.

I had noticed the sky and breathed it in, continuing my walk, when an odd thing happened.  I was just at a street corner in my neighborhood when a car came up the street.  One of my neighbors whom I don’t know well – just to say hello, and the standard bit of chit chat here and there.  She was returning home after dropping her daughter off at the school bus stop.  Normally we would wave as she drove by.

Instead, she stopped and rolled down the window.  ‘What a beautiful sunrise!’ she exclaimed.  I couldn’t help but agree.  Beautiful indeed.  She closed her window and drove on.  For a few moments I stood in the early morning quiet and wondered why she stopped.  I think it might have been simply this:  the beauty of our world is enhanced when we share it with others.  The sunrise was beautiful, but to share it with another person, to acknowledge it –  to ‘name it’ if you will (a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – perhaps a future blog post) – gives us a sensitivity to the beauty, and an appreciation for it, that we just couldn’t find otherwise.

Judaism has long intuited this idea.  There are a series of blessings to be recited upon seeing the wonders of nature.  ברכת הנהנין they are called, blessings of enjoyment.  There is a blessing for seeing a beautiful tree or smelling a fragrant flower, for seeing lightning or hearing thunder, for a rainbow in the sky, for the first blossom of spring, for seeing the sea and its roiling waves.  Reciting those blessings also invites a sharing of the moment when we are struck by the beauty that is in this world, in this case, a sharing of that experience with God. It is our way of stopping at the street corner, rolling down that window, and naming our experience in the presence of another.

Interestingly there is not a blessing specific to the sunrise.  Perhaps that is because the sense of sunrise is addressed in the morning services itself – God is the one ‘Who forms light and makes darkness.’  But there is a blessing of a general nature, to be recited upon seeing beautiful scenes in nature – Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, in Whose world such things can be seen.



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