Monthly Archives: January 2014

Where Sermons Come From

The internet of course.  Just kidding.  Although I suppose some folks go to the internet for ideas (and probably in some cases entire sermons) I have mainly relied on more traditional ‘methods.’  There are three major places I go searching for sermon sparks.

First is the text.  The tradition gives us a weekly reading cycle for Shabbat morning, with specified texts from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Prophets.  Not uncommonly a read-through of the weekly portion will put a sermonic idea into my head.  Sometimes it might come from an overarching theme in the portion, other times it might be a single verse, or phrase, or even one word.  Reading the text with commentaries is always helpful, as the commentaries bring out ideas that I wouldn’t think of otherwise.

Secondly, מעשה שהיה as the Talmudic rabbis used to say – something that happened.  I’ve given sermons (or sermonettes) on such things as license plates, encounters in Home Depot, an unused ticket to a Who concert from the 70s, conversations I’ve had with people, things my children have done, the list could go on and on.   But something that happens in the course of every day life strikes me as sermonic, and then I work from there.  Sometimes I will attach an actual text to the idea as it develops, sometimes I won’t.  But the thing that happened in someway illustrates the message of the sermon.  In a sense, the event becomes a kind of ‘text’ in the sermon structure.

Finally, the news.  The events of the day, the headlines.  By and large you’ll find most rabbis, and clergy folk in general, are news hounds. In the news you can find sermonic material in human interest stories, op-ed columns, obituaries, and sometimes just in the actual news itself.  Jews in general are interested in what happened in Israel, or what happened to a Jew or Jewish community anywhere in the world.  Sometimes these sermons might be more information driven and less ‘message’ oriented.  

Oftentimes, of course, the above three areas are combined into one sermon.  You might find an idea in the text, realize it works well with something that happened in the news during the week and then you’ll also use a story to reinforce the point.  Sometimes the pieces come together easily.  Other times it can be a struggle.  My feeling about it is you do your best, and then just move on.  But one thing is for sure – you need to start somewhere.   

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A Rabbi’s Sunday…

7 – 8:30 AM – writing eulogy #1

9 – 10:15 – writing eulogy #2

10:30 – 11:15 – hospital visit

11:30 – exec committee meeting

1 – 3 – funeral #1

3 – 5 – funeral #2

5 – 6 – meet with family for tomorrow’s funeral

6:20 – 7 – hospital visit

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Where Magic Works

While in college my sophomore year I took an anthropology class, not because it was connected to my major (psychology) but just because I was interested in the topic.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit I remember absolutely nothing about the class, except one statement made by the professor.  As part of his field work he had spent a year of his life living with a primitive tribe in the jungles of Africa.  One day in class he was speaking about that experience in relation to whatever we were studying, and he said, almost as an aside, that the most remarkable thing about living with that tribe was that in their culture, in their world, magic actually works.

I remember there was a bit of give and take as a couple of my classmates pushed the professor on his statement.  What did he mean, exactly?  What kind of magic was he referring to?  In the end he said that in a culture where everyone believes in an ideal, where everyone fully buys into the system, if the system, or part of it, is magic, then in that culture, for those people, magic will work.  It will bring meaning into people’s lives, at times heal them, help crops to grow, protect them against evil spirits, help them make important choices in their lives and on and on – it works!

I’ve been thinking about that idea quite a bit since returning from the Rabbinic Training Institute.  In a sense the rabbis on the retreat, all gathered together, create a group like the tribe the professor lived with.  We have a system, and we believe in it and buy into it.  And when we are all together, all believers, all invested in the system and knowledgable about it, it creates a powerful experience where the ‘magic’ actually works.  The davening is filled with spirit and power and meaning.  The study has deep wisdom and a sense of the sacred.  Gratitude is expressed and experienced through blessings that are recited daily.  This is Jewish life as it is meant to be lived, focusing on what the Talmudic rabbis called ‘Chayei Olam,’ the life of the spirit.  The ancient system actually does work.

The challenge for the rabbi, of course, is to bring some of the ‘magic’ back into the secular world that we all live and work in.  A world where not everyone believes and/or buys into the system.  Where the challenges and distractions of everyday life and the demands of our jobs pull us away from study and prayer, from time to think and reflect.  And yet that is our task.  Judaism has never been a monastic tradition.  What good is the system if it remains behind a veil of secrecy, available only to the acolyte?  Perhaps Moses is a model.  He brought the tablets back down from the mountain, giving them to the people, leaving the space of unified communion with God for a (sometimes very difficult) life filled with the very best and worst of what people are.  In many ways we are doing our best to continue to uncover the meaning of that moment, as it resonates still to this day in our own time, our world, our lives.

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Our Shabbat ‘Observant’ Dog

Our Shabbat 'Observant' Dog

Each morning I walk our pooch around 6:15. On Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday we leave the house, and he gently ambles around in the yard before walking around the neighborhood. On these days his routine never varies.
But Shabbat is different. When we leave the house on Saturday morning he runs as quickly as I will let him to a path that runs from our neighborhood to the local high school. He pulls me down the path, and on that one day he walks in an adjacent neighborhood and through the high school fields. For years I wondered – how did he know it was Shabbat? He only makes for that path on Saturday mornings.
My friend Steve Kravet helped me figure out how Brady knows that Shabbat is a day apart. He said that there must be something I do differently on Shabbat morning, something that is not done on any other morning of the week. Our dog recognizes this, knows it is a different day, and makes for the high school.
After thinking it over for a while, I realized what it is. It is not something I do on Shabbat, but instead something I don’t do on Saturday mornings that I do every other day of the week, right before walking Brady – make coffee!
Because of the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat, I don’t make coffee Saturday morning. At some point Brady realized that on the day I don’t make coffee he gets to go on a longer, more interesting walk. Maybe we can call it Brady’s Shabbat walk. And all because he ‘observed’ that Shabbat is a different day than any other day of the week.

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January 19, 2014 · 10:22 pm

Gordis Redux – Whither Conservative Judaism?

      Rabbi Danny Gordis’ recent article Requiem for the Conservative Movement, an analysis/reflection on the results of the Pew Study vis a vis Conservative Judaism, created a veritable firestorm of staunch defenses of the Movement from its leaders, thinkers, and rabbis.  In a follow up piece from last week, Gordis responds to the responders, or as he calls them, his ‘interlocutors.’  In the course of a lengthy article (almost twice the length of his original piece) he does his best to answer his critics, and also attempts to reinforce some of the ideas from his original ‘requiem.’  There are two fundamental flaws in his argument, but also one essential truth.  First the  flaws.

     The first comes from Gordis’ misunderstanding of what he calls ‘aspirational’ Judaism.  By this he means the challenge that a faith tradition should present to its members to live more engaged and meaningful lives.  A religion should be demanding, not acquiescing;  it should expect its members to grow in soul (a David Wolpe phrase), not remain on a level spiritual plane.  All of this is true, and you would be hard pressed to find any religious leader from any faith tradition that would disagree.  Gordis’ mistake is that he takes the idea of aspirational religious life and he connects it to halachah, Jewish law.  These ideas may be connected at times, but they do not need to be, and a faith tradition can be highly aspirational while having very little interest in a legalistic approach to religious life.  I would argue that Conservative Judaism is highly aspirational.  It encourages its members to study more, to come to services more, even to observe more seriously, and most importantly to use classic Jewish values like the importance of giving charity and the idea that all humans are created in the image of God as guiding values.  But to believe that the Movement’s less stringent views of driving on Shabbat and eating out in a restaurant have had a negative impact on the Jews in the pews is simply misguided.  The fact is the vast majority of Conservative Jews don’t even have these issues on their radar screens, so how can they ever be ‘aspirational’ for people?

     The second flaw in Gordis’ thinking comes from the title of his rejoinder, ‘Cognitive Dissonance.’  This is what he describes as the gap between where a person is and where they feel they should be.  He understands Orthodox Judaism as the movement most invested in the idea of cognitive dissonance, and believes that is one of the reasons why Orthdoxy is growing while Conservative Judaism is shrinking.  Knowing some of what goes on in the mainstream Orthodox community these days it seems to me as if the opposite is true.  Most Orthodox rabbis, and many Orthodox Jews, are not at all comfortable with ‘cognitive dissonance.’  Instead, as Orthodoxy’s lean to the right continues, it is less and less comfortable with ideas, values, and narratives that do not reflect the strictest definition of how one should practice and even what one should think.  Gordis imagines, I guess, that many within Orthodoxy today are mini-Soloveitchiks, ready and able to keep in their minds the tension between Orthodox dogma and modern thought.  The truth is there are a handful pockets where this kind of dynamic exists today, but YU is no longer one of them.  They are few and far between, and the fact that rabbis ordained at such places as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah have trouble being recognized as rabbis in many Orthodox communities is all you need to know.  For all of the Orthodox community’s passion, and its many strengths, cognitive dissonance is simply not its forte.  

     Which brings me to the one essential truth in Gordis’ new argument.  He writes that in all of the responses to his initial ‘eulogy’ of the Conservative Movement, there were defenses of what Conservative Judaism is and has been, but there were not suggestions as to what it should be.  I am afraid that by and large he is correct.  The defenses of the Movement have been intelligently and in some cases passionately stated.  They have acknowledged, with complete intellectual integrity, the Movement’s flaws while trumpeting its success, of which there are many.  But there is not a sense, as you read through the responses, that anyone has a clear idea of what should be done and of how we should change.  The status quo may be high quality, but if so it is a high quality product in which fewer and fewer Jews are choosing to invest.  Perhaps it is time to try to get a sense of why that is the case, and in so doing to begin a conversation about what we can change to make a difference in the years to come, not holding on and fading away, but growing and glowing brighter.

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Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

I had a burial service today at Arlington National Cemetery. There are power spots in the world, where the very feeling of a place is in someway enhanced, where the energy is palpable. Arlington is such a place. There is a natural reverence for the sacred, for sacrifice, for freedom, and for America that is impossible to miss while there.
It also struck me today during the military honors of the service that what we want more than anything else from our mourning rituals is dignity. Comfort is important to us as well, but it is a much more illusive and personal experience. Dignity, however, is something we can create and control, and it enables us to honor the memory of those we lose even as we grieve, uncomforted.

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January 14, 2014 · 2:19 am

How Many Rabbis Does It Take To Name God?

     Back from a fabulous retreat for Conservative rabbis officially called the Rabbinic Training Institute, and affectionately called ‘rabbi camp.’  One evening class our teacher asked us to think of a name for God that was currently important to us.  We went around, one by one telling the class our ‘Godname.’  There were 15 of us in the class, all rabbis.  Some in pulpits, some in day school work, some in chaplaincy.  Not one of us used the same name.  One rabbi said he was recently calling God ‘ribon ha’olamim,’ Master of Worlds, because he had been reading about the nature of the universe.  Another rabbi called God ‘haRahamim,’ the Merciful One, explaining that he could not believe in a God Who was not merciful.  Yet another rabbi called God ‘haRofeih,’ the Healer, saying that she had been making a lot of hospital visits of late.  The name I chose was ‘haMakom,’ literally translated as the Place.  As we continued to go around, each person chose a name that was different, that was specific to something in their lives, some emotion or thought or sense that spoke to them at that time of God’s presence.

     In Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, the young mage Ged learns the importance of names in his magical training.  Each thing in Leguin’s magical world has a true name, and once you know that true name, you enter into a level of intimacy with the thing that would not be possible otherwise.  You can use that knowledge to control the thing with a magical spell.  But the message seems to be that a name holds the essence of a thing’s identity, and knowing it enables the knower to relate to the thing in the most powerful and true way possible.

     This is true in our world, in a different way.   We have all had the experience at some point of realizing an important person knew our name when we thought they didn’t.  Perhaps a teacher, or someone we wanted to become friendly with, or simply someone we held in high regard.  When we realized they knew our name it changed how we felt about them, and in fact changed the very nature of the relationship.  Perhaps it works the same way with God.  We might believe God knows our name.  The question I would like to ask is this:  do we know God’s name?

     On the surface that might seem like a strange question.  But our teacher put it like this:  calling God ‘God’ all the time is akin to receiving an envelope that is addressed to ‘occupant.’  God is really a generic term, a catch all, that can be used to cover any entity living at the ‘above’ address (pun intended).  But if we want a closer relationship with God, a deeper connection, we should work to find God’s true name, or names.  The tradition has dozens upon dozens of names for God.  Each connotes a different quality of God’s, a different way that we might experience God manifest in our lives and our world.  Many names for God are found in the Bible.  Many more in rabbinic literature.  But sometimes we don’t have to look farther than our own hearts and souls to find a meaningful name for God.  The name might (in fact probably should) change over time, depending on circumstances, on our lives, on the world around us.  It reminds us that we probably know more about God than we think.  Names may not be magical, but they do have power.

     So – how many rabbis does it take to name God.  Well, only one.  Or fifteen.  Or both.  You get the idea.  Now look for the name you would use for God.

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