Monthly Archives: March 2014

My Brothers and Sisters

text version of sermon delivered on 3/29

This Shabbat is the last in a series of four special Shabbats leading up to Pesah, calledשבת החדש, meaning the Sabbath of THE month, namely the month of Nissan that is about to begin. There is a special maftir reading, and also a special haftara associated with the day, both of which describe the celebration of the Passover holiday, in the the maftir reading, the very first Passover that the Israelites observed in Egypt, smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts so the angel of death would pass – over their homes, and in the haftara a description of a future Passover that will be observed in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.
Both texts emphasize the importance of the Passover holiday in the Jewish consciousness, in the first case the sense that the very first communal moment that we shared as a people was a Passover celebration, and in the second case that even in the future, in a time when we are expecting the Messiah, we will still be celebrating the Passover holiday, sitting at our seder tables, and telling the story of the Exodus to our children and grandchildren. That this Shabbat is called HAhodesh, the Sabbath of THE month, also shows how important Passover is in Judaism, calling the month the holiday falls in THE month. And when you add to that the fact that statistics consistently show that Passover is by far the most observed Jewish holiday, with upwards of %90 of Jews managing to go to a seder, it is quite clear that Passover is the Jewish holiday par excellence.
I grew up celebrating Passovers here in Baltimore, as each spring my parents would load my sister, my brother, and me into our car and we would drive south from Binghamton to what used to be, at least, warmer spring weather than we were used to in upstate New York. It was a special time for me each year, not only because I was able to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but also because of the holiday itself, the rituals of the seder night, the special foods, and the almost magical way that Passover has of creating a time that feels sacred. Each year Passover was probably the most deeply felt Jewish time of my childhood, along with the fall holidays, and without question looking back I know that the holiday and its themes became core building blocks of my Jewish identity.
There was another spring experience during those trips south in my youth that helped to shape my Jewish self as well, and that was, strange as it may seem, my celebration of Easter. My mother is a convert to Judaism, so I grew up with one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and when Passover and Easter were close together, we would travel from Pikesville to Catonsville to see them, often on Easter Sunday. We didn’t go to Church with them of course, but we would come for Easter dinner, joining with cousins and aunts and uncles from the other side of my family for a meal that did not have four cups of wine and matzah and bitter herbs, but was festive nonetheless. I still remember to this day running around in my grandparents yard on an easter egg hunt, competing with the other children to see how many eggs I could collect, and I also remember sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table, dying the eggs in bright spring colors.
Those experiences first and foremost affirmed my sense that I was part of a larger world, not just a Jewish world. I already knew this from growing up in a relatively small town with few Jews, and the truth is for a time I was the only Jewish child in my elementary school – the only one! But to know that I had family members who were not Jewish, and what is more to know that they had their own faith tradition that was rich and meaningful, reminded me year in and year out that God didn’t only care about the Jews, and that God wasn’t only interested in the Jews, but that God valued, cared about, and was interested in other faith traditions just as much as Judaism.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of Pesach and Easter left me, even at that young age, with the indelible impression that what we share is far greater than what divides us. I could not help but think, as I searched for Easter eggs, that just the night before I had been sitting with a seder plate in front of my eyes, and there next to the shank bone was a roasted – ? – egg! And if you know anything at all about Easter you know that it is a big candy holiday, with Easter baskets filled with chocolate bunnies, eggs, chicks, and jelly beans, and other tasty treats. But did you ever stop to think about how much candy we eat on Pesah? Chocolate covered almonds, apricots, raisins, macaroons – for crying out loud, we even make chocolate covered matzah! I don’t know about you, but I eat more chocolate during the 8 days of Pesah than I do the rest of the year combined! Just imagine my dilemma – after gorging on chocolate Passover treats, the very next morning I was confronted with a large chocolate bunnie – talk about a good problem!
But I learned another valuable lesson from those experiences, also formative in my Jewish identity, and that was that my Judaism made me distinct, it made me different. I still believe to this day that one of the very best ways to learn about yourself and deeply understand who you are and what is important to you is to spend time with who and what you are not. In some ways it is only through those experiences that the lines begin to form, and you start to have a sense that there are certain core parts of your identity that belong to you and make you part of a particular people with a particular history, a particular story, and a particular relationship with God. Certainly that is very much what Passover is about, but isn’t it funny that I learned that lesson in a powerful way on an Easter egg hunt many years ago.
Last night we had the fortune and blessing to share our evening services with the members of Union Bethel AME Church and their spiritual leader Pastor Sembly. Tomorrow morning, our choir and Beth El members will travel to their church, joining together in worship, study, song, and celebration. This is an experience for our congregation that we take great pride in, and although we are not able to do it every year, when we do do it, we always do it in the spring, when the earth comes back to life, when Jews sit at their seder tables, and when Christians celebrate the origins of their faith, come together in Church, and thank God for the blessing of renewed life, and on the Sunday afternoon of Easter share a sacred meal and look for hidden eggs.
It is a time of year when our faith traditions share more than they do at any other time, and it is also the time of year when we are most acutely aware of our own stories our own history, and our distinctiveness. What is perhaps most important of all is to let this sacred season remind us that God Godself rejoices in our difference, celebrates our distinctions, and accepts each of our paths as authentic and true. And also when we hold ourselves up in the great glory of God’s essence, we know deep down that we are truly all brothers and sisters, and that we have come from the same source, the Living God. I’ll conclude this morning with the words of this old Christian spiritual, a song I am familiar with because it was sung many times by the Jerry Garcia Band – the title of the song, appropriate for us this weekend, is My Sisters and Brothers, by the song writer Charles Johnson – here is the chorus –

Walk together little children,
You don’t ever have to worry,
Through this world of trouble
We gotta love one another,
Let’s take our fellow man by the hand
Try to help him to understand
We will all be together for ever and ever
When we make it to the promised land.

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The Importance of Interfaith Friendship

Not dialogue.  Not conversation, or even text study, conferences, or interfaith trips to Israel.  The importance of interfaith friendship.  True and real relationships, with respect, caring, and sharing, with some ups and downs, with the ability to disagree but still love, with the sense that my life, my world, is better because you are in it.  Deep, lasting, abiding friendship.

Interfaith friendship has not been our forte in the Jewish community.  That is not an indictment, it is a statement of fact.  It is also not surprising, with our long and difficult history of persecution, often at the hands of other religious groups.  At the same time it reflects a certain level of disinterest.  Let them believe what they want, we might say, what business is it of ours?  And why should we care about it anyway, what can we learn from them, from their faith?

The simple truth is, a lot.  I have been blessed over the years in friendships with pastors, priests, ministers, and imams.  In learning from them, in knowing them, in discovering how they live, but more importantly who they are as people, my own faith has deepened, and my understanding of who I am as a Jew and more importantly as a human being has grown.  This is not always an easy endeavor.  The conversations can be challenging at times, perplexing, sometimes even difficult.  There are ancient hurts, theological walls, layers of mistrust and misunderstanding that need to be peeled away.  But the rewards are enormous.  

We should embrace them, more and more.  This is the season to be sensitive to especially our Christian brothers and sisters.  Easter and Passover, Passover and Easter.  Holidays of renewal and regeneration, of spring celebration, of remembering the origins of our respective faiths.  In true interfaith friendship we grow stronger in our own faith, and even more appreciative of God’s world.  Imagine the blessing that God ‘sees’ in that journey that we all make together.

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Whose Religious Freedom Are We Talking About Anyway?

The Supreme Court will be hearing a case this week that could go a long ways in terms of determining how our legal system understands the issue of religious freedom.  Two businesses (both secular and for profit) will be arguing before the Court that the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that they provide contraceptive coverage to employees is a violation of the business owner’s religious freedom (they personally take the view that contraceptive use is against God’s will).  

The legal arguments will revolve around the fact that a business is not an individual, and therefore doesn’t actually have its own religious beliefs.  I’ll let the lawyers wrangle out the legal details using the proper language and citing the appropriate case precedents. But I like to use the following analogy to frame the issue for people in the Jewish community:  imagine that a law on the books required any business that employed 30 or more people to provide foodstamps to employees whose annual income was under a certain amount.  My synagogue employs more than 30 people, so we would be legally required to provide the foodstamps.  But we would then argue that since Judaism says people shouldn’t eat pork, we don’t want our employees to use their foodstamps to buy pork products.  Sounds ridiculous, right?  First of all, many of those employees are not Jewish.  Why should we expect them to observe Jewish law?  Secondly, even if they were Jewish, what right do we have to impose our religious beliefs on others?

The businesses that will be arguing their case in court this week are saying that the government is compromising their religious freedom.  In reality, though, it is the business owners who are trying to compromise the religious freedom of others, imposing their personal faith tenets on their employees.  Hopefully the Court will understand this dynamic, and come to a decision that will ensure greater religious freedom for all of us.

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What is a Lab/Shul Anyway?

This past Sunday in the NY Times there was a long article in the front section about the ‘Lab/Shul,’ an experimental Jewish community/learning/worship/spiritual program that has been operating in New York for a number of years.  It is run by a rabbinical student at JTS who is also the founder, several years ago now, of the fairly well known ‘Storahtelling’ project, where the weekly Torah portion is used as the basis for an interactive, theatrical presentation during services.  The article described a number of the ‘out of the box’ initiatives that the Lab/Shul is pursuing, to include the use of electronic media during services (large video screens), Friday night havura style dinners in people’s homes with topic guided discussion, and the use of non-synagogue spaces (a wine bar, for example) for worship services.

The Lab/Shul is just one example of a number of non-denominational worship communities (independent minyanim, as they prefer to be called) to have sprung up in recent years, including Mechon Hadar in NYC, and the well known Ikar in LA.  The phenomenon is indicative of a larger malaise regarding organized Jewish life felt by younger Jews especially, and laid out for all to see in gory detail in the recent Pew Study results.  People are looking for something different.  The old style of service (sit and turn to page 239), the old style of Hebrew school (learn to read Hebrew, study the holidays, prepare for bar/bat mitzvah), the old dues structures (pay $1500 or more to come to shul a few times a year) are all, as my 11th grade English teacher used to say, going the way of all flesh.  The question, of course, is what will replace them.  The independent minyan (the Lab/Shul included) is one answer to that question.

On the one hand, I admit I am skeptical.  As the independent minyanim grow, they quickly become very ‘synagogue like.’  They create some kind of dues structure, they need a Hebrew school because children begin to reach the age of bar/bat mitzvah, they hold services on the High Holy Days, and Shabbat and festivals.  They hire clergy, who need to be paid, and they raise money for a physical space to make their home.  Case in point, the last few sentences in the Times article about the Lab/Shul, from the founding rabbi: “I was counterculture, outside the box,” he said. “Now we’re going to do a shul and I’m going to be the rabbi?” He paused. “Is that giving up? Am I giving in? Now I’m the system?”

On the other hand, there is something to it.  An energy and excitement, a commitment and connection to Jewish life and Jewish values that is refreshing and heartening.  The synagogues have been doing business as usual for too long, of that there can no longer be any doubt.  Speaking with a member of my shul yesterday who is almost 25 years older than I, we realized our growing up shul experiences had been identical.  The traditional system really hasn’t changed in 50-60 years.  But think about the changes in society in the last half century.  Actually, think about the changes in the last 10 years, the different world that our children are growing up in and in which we all live.  Could you imagine driving a car that worked the way cars did 50 years ago?  No way!  So why would we want to belong to a shul that functions the same way it did 50 years ago?

The challenge, of course, is where do the lines fall, where are the ultimate boundaries.  At what point is a shul no longer a shul?  Or, in my shul’s case, at what point are we no longer a Conservative shul?  Is it when bar/bat mitzvah happens outside of the building?  Is it when we decide to use a large video screen during services?  When we decide bar mitzvah will be entirely experiential, and children will no longer be called to read from the Torah as a way of marking that life cycle event?  If we become more like a JCC, with a coffee house, and yoga classes, and people come, its terrific.  But are we still a shul?  Should we still try to be?

Ten years ago these questions were not even on the table.  Today they are front and center.  How they will be answered remains to be seen.  Some of the answers have to come from the national organizations, from the heads of the Movements.  Some of the answers have to come from individual clergy and imaginative lay leaders, from communities that are struggling to keep up with the times while staying connected with the past.  In a way, you might say we are all ‘lab/shuls’ these days.  So lets experiment.  We’ve nothing to lose.  Except our identity.

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Will the Real Mr. Banks Please Stand Up

Last night we hunkered down at the end of yet another snowy day in this oddly wintery winter to watch the recent Disney film Saving Mr. Banks.  The movie tells the story of Walt Disney’s attempt to convince P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories, to sell the character’s rights to Disney for a movie production.  The Travers character is portrayed by Emma Thompson as a prickly and proper Englishwoman with very definite ideas about how her beloved creation should be handled for the big screen.  Walt Disney is played by the great Tom Hanks (how is it possible the same actor in this film also starred as Captain Phillips?!) as a sort of fatherly business man with a gift for bringing the magic of imagination into the real world.  

The movie is centered around the contest of wills between the two lead characters in the present set against flashbacks to P.L. Travers’ childhood.  She grew up in a troubled home with a father she adored who happened to be an underachieving alcoholic, dying when she was only 7 years old.  The sense in the film is that the struggling father of the Banks family in Mary Poppins is a representation of Travers’ real father, and her attempt, through her writing, to come to terms with the man who cultivated her gift of imagination but at the same time betrayed and disappointed her. 

In the course of the movie P.L. Travers is slowly but inevitably won over by Disney’s magic and the music of the creative team that is working on writing the film.  In the last scene she sits in the theater watching the film’s premiere, weeping in a cathartic moment that seems to indicate she has finally been able to lay to rest the demons of her childhood and come to terms with who her father was, and who he was not.  The movie is touching, albeit a bit syrupy in typical Disney style.  Sentimentalists will probably enjoy it, while the realists among us, perhaps not so much.

Of course what we do these days after watching such a film is to immediately google it to find out how much of the storyline is true.  The answer in this case is yes and no.  The core of the story – that Travers had a troubled childhood, an alcoholic father, and that Disney worked for years to get her to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, is all factual.  So is the portrayal of P.L. Travers as difficult and demanding in terms of how her Mary Poppins character could and should be handled for the big screen.  What does not seem to be true, however, is the transformation, the softening, of Travers and her personality that is the emotional core of the movie.  In reality she fought with Disney about the film from beginning to end, and he rebuffed her because of the contract that had been signed.  By all reports she hated the movie when she saw it, never watched it again, and was disappointed to say the least that her original story, with its harder edges and struggling characters, had been given the ‘Disney treatment’ and a happy ending.

There is an old idea that poetry should come from grief, and not grievances.  Real life is messy, with alcoholic fathers and disappointing mothers, with childhood trauma that leaves a lasting impact, with hard nosed business decisions trumping an artist’s right to control her own creation.  And yet from that – and perhaps only from that – does the human spirit make great art.  Dancing penguins and a flying nanny, music that lifts the soul, a struggling family saved by a strong spirited woman who comes in at precisely the right moment, carried on the ‘winds in the east, mist blowing in.’

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The desk a reflection of…?

The desk a reflection of...?

Einstein famously said “if a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as it always seems to be. I know that my desk will never be one that is entirely clear. After all, where else would I put that article I’ve been meaning to look at for the last two years? At the same time, when I get crazy busy my desk gets messier and messier. Here it is after a busy week and a half stretch.

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March 17, 2014 · 6:44 pm

Purim Plans

Purim Plans

We are having a 70s themed Purim this year at the shul, and I spent part of the day hunting for some quality 70s duds. Here you see them – should certainly fit in with the evening! Along with a beard shaving, leaving just my mustache, I’ll be more 70s than I’ve been since – well, the 70s!
There is an old rabbinic tradition that Purim and Yom Kippur are opposite sides of the same coin. On Purim we feast, on Yom Kippur we fast. On Purim we laugh, on Yom Kippur we cry. And on Purim we dress up as who we are not, while on Yom Kippur we try to uncover who we truly are.
The truth is we need both. Days for serious reflection, for spiritual searching and growth of soul. But also days to just let go, to forget about it all, to look at life and all of its absurdity, and to laugh.
One thing is for sure. The outfit in this picture should work pretty well for Purim. For Yom Kippur? Not so much. Happy Purim!!

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March 11, 2014 · 6:47 pm