Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Funny Business

The rabbinate that is.  It really can be strange.  Some days you work your tail off, you run around like crazy, and at the end of the day, exhausted, you feel like you’ve accomplished very little.  Other days, with low expectations, figuring that none of your efforts will make even the least bit of difference, you can feel like you’ve changed someone’s life for the better.

Maybe it is because of the old idea, oft cited (by me, at least) that religion isn’t science.  Heck, even science is barely science these days, working on ultimately unprovable concepts like string theory and the multiverse.  But religion for sure isn’t science. It is instead a complicated stew – a bit of mystery, a dash (or more) of myth, the human need to search for meaning, the human feeling of being a small creature in a vast universe, the terrifying power of thunder, the beauty of a rainbow. But also – a kind word, a gentle gesture, a connection to community, to family, to history, and perhaps even to God.  Try mixing up that recipe!  Try measuring out those ingredients.  Good luck!

And yet we do try.  Again and again.  And every once in a while, the proper elements come together at just the right moment in just the right way, and  – something happens.  There is more than this world, this universe.  There is a way to touch that mystery.  Even a small creature matters, even a small creature can make a difference.  Even a rabbi.

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A Smiling President

President Obama has been in quite a bit of hot water lately, but this past week he was criticized for a new offense, as far as I can tell – for smiling and laughing while riding in a golf cart.  The facts:  the President (while on vacation) had been on the phone with the parents of the brutally murdered American journalist James Foley.  Immediately afterwards, he gave a brief press conference during which he spoke emotionally about Foley’s killing.  Then a few minutes after that he climbed into a golf cart for a round of 18.  While in the cart he was photographed smiling and laughing.

The criticism was immediate and fairly harsh.  He could he be so disingenuous?  How could he fake emotion in front of the cameras, and then go out for such a frivolous activity, laughing all the way?  Shouldn’t he have canceled his golf game, or at least, while sitting in the cart, kept up a somber and serious demeanor?  I have to say, on this one I sympathize with the President.  And my guess is, most clergy would.

Why?  Because anyone who is a member of the clergy has done the same thing.  You meet with a family about an upcoming funeral, and right afterwards you might take a call from an old friend and chuckle over past escapades.  You might leave an unveiling and drive to a wedding, ‘switching’ your emotional level from  reverence and sadness to joy.  You might walk away from the graveside and drive directly to a baby naming.  Or vice versa.  You might even leave a funeral, after speaking with genuine emotion about the deceased, and go to play golf, laughing at a joke that your playing partner makes.

And you have to do it that way.  If you don’t, you won’t be able to live a normal life.  Every moment of every day will be taken up with emotional freight, with either the highest highs or the lowest lows.  Like with any profession, you have to be able to disengage, to leave the ‘office’ behind, and just let go and be you.  Even if you are the rabbi.  All the more so if you are the President.  

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From Crab Feasts to Kashrut

here the text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (8/24)

     This morning’s Torah portion contains one of the two references to the laws of keeping kosher that you find in the Torah, the other being in the book of Leviticus, in the 11th chapter.  The biblical system of kashrut is different from the way people keep kosher today – the biblical laws are largely concerned about which animals are permitted and which are not, and which fish are permitted and which are not.  Both of the fundamental laws that govern the the permissibility of fish and animals are found in this morning’s reading – the rule for fish?  It must have fins and scales to be considered kosher.  The rule for animals?  It must chew its cud AND have split hooves.  So a cow which has both features is kosher, a pig which has a split hoof but does not chew its cud is not;  or if we are thinking about fish, your salmon has fins and it has scales, but a shark doesn’t have scales, so it is not kosher.  

     In rabbinic times, when the rabbis were shaping a new Judaism, they expanded the kashrut system and defined it, bringing in the idea that milk and meat should not be combined.  And it was at that moment, folks, that we lost cheese burgers, and many other delicious dishes like chicken parmesan.  Of course when I came to Baltimore I learned that Baltimore has its own very specific system of kashrut where people will keep kosher, but in the summer they’ll eat crabs (technically not kosher) – probably not in their home, but in a designated area on their deck, or their back porch or whatever it may be.  Be that what it may, by talmudic times – probably around the year 350 or so of the common era – the system of kashrut that we use today was in place – an animal must chew its cud and have split hooves;  a fish must have fins and scales;  and last but not least, milk and meat may not be eaten together.

     I did not grow up in a kosher home, but I did grow up in a Baltimore family – both of my parents native Baltimoreans – so I spent at least part of every summer from the time I was little into my college years, and even to the time when Becky and were first married, at Bethany Beach, and I always looked forward to sitting down to a fabulous crab feast – with the crabs on the table, the mallets, a few cans of decent beer – and you are talking about a fine meal.  These days, as each summer comes to a close, I realize that another summer has come and gone without my tasting crabs.  And I was thinking about crabs earlier in the week – what else does a rabbi do when he is supposed to be preparing HHD sermons? – and I realized this is now the 22nd summer that has gone by without my having crabs.  It was 22 years ago, you see, that I decided to keep kosher – and since that day I have, missing only 2 things – crabs are one, and the other – cheeseburgers – I do miss cheeseburgers.

     The truth is I came to kashrut somewhat gradually.  Becky grew up in a kosher home, and when we are getting ready to get married she said to me “I want to keep a kosher home.”  To which I replied “That is fine with me.  When we go out, I can still eat whatever I like.”  The problem was this – I began to gradually feel that there was an inconsistency in the way I was eating – at home kosher, out of the house, eating whatever I felt like eating.  And then one day I was out at a bar with a friend of mine, and we were having a beer, and I was hungry, so I ordered a basket of hot chicken wings – I grew up in upstate New York, you know.  I was sipping my beer and eating the wings and talking with my friend.  He had recently started keeping kosher, and I told him – I keep kosher at home, but when I am out I eat what I want – like these wings.  And he said this to me – you don’t keep kosher at home, or out, there is only one place you keep kosher – in your stomach.  I was holding a wing in my hand when he said it, and I vividly remember to this day my reaction – I put that wing back into the basket, slid the basket away from me, and from that day have kept kosher – not at home or out, but in my stomach.  And since then, I have been missing my crabs.

     Now I want to tell you something that may sound strange coming from a rabbi, but it is important to understanding what kashrut means to me and why I have decided to take on this obligation in my life.  And that is that I do not believe God worries about what I am eating.  That is to say that if I did walk out of shul this morning and drive to  – what is the name of a local crab restaurant – and ate crabs, I do not believe God would look down on me and say Schwartz has sinned because of what he ate!  If that is the case, you may fairly ask, then why do I bother to do it?  Why have I kept kosher now for 22 years, why will I keep kosher for the rest of my life?

     One answer to that question is that it is about discipline.  Jewish law, halacha, is largely about discipline – but discipline with a purpose, which I largely understand as this:  if you can control your instinct on something even as basic as eating – if you can choose NOT to eat certain foods that you would like to eat – than you can control other instincts.  Anger.  Fear.  The need to strike out at another person.  And on a certain level it is precisely our ability to control our instincts that makes us human.  An animal cannot control its instincts.  If it is hungry, it eats.  If it is angry, it strikes.  If it is afraid, it runs.  So kashrut is a day to day reminder that my instincts – even my basest instincts – do not control me.  I can control them.

     But the second thing at least for me in terms of kashrut is that it has given me a powerful sense of connection on three different levels.  One is it gives me a connection to Jewish history.  We have kashrut laws in this morning’s Torah portion.  The book of Deuteronomy is about 2600 years old, and if it is recording a system of kashrut it means that Jews had to be observing that system even before that – so for some 3000 years or so, and very possibly longer, Jews have been keeping kosher in some way. 3000 years is a lot of history.  And every time I decide to keep kosher – which really is every time I eat – I step in to that chain of tradition.

     It is not just Jewish history, though, it is also the Jewish people.  There is only one reason I keep kosher – because I am a Jew.  And by keeping kosher, it automatically connects me to Jews around the world, to the Jewish people, where ever they live, whatever community they might be a part of.  And it also makes my home a place where all Jews will feel comfortable eating.  And in a difficult time for the Jewish people, during a difficult year for the Jewish people, every time you make a decision to keep kosher – which again for me is every time I eat – you are affirming your connection to Am Yisrael, to the Jewish people.  

     And last, but certainly not least, keeping kosher does connect me to God.   Not, as I said above, because I think this is something that God wants me to do.  But because when I do it – like with prayer, or with study – I have a sense that I am using the structure of our tradition – the beautiful structure that is Judaism – to create for myself a spiritual life.  And I can tell you that for me, at least, for the last 22 years, it has worked pretty well.  Even if I do miss my crabs from time to time.

     The last thing I would say is this – if you’ve ever thought about keeping kosher, the start of a new year is a good time to begin.  And you don’t have to do it all at once.  Don’t look at the whole system and say I can’t do all of it, so I won’t do any of it.  Do some, start with one step – cut out pork, or try not to eat milk and meat together – and then see where you are after a few months.  My guess will be, if you do give it a try, that wherever you are you will be in a place that is more connected to who you are as a Jew – and that is a pretty good place for any Jew to be.

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A Paean to Summers Past

A recent article in the NY Times reviewed data that indicated summer has changed over the years.  What was, 30 or 40 years ago, a relatively unstructured time for children has become 10 weeks of tightly scheduled camps, trips, lessons, and summer school work (mostly math packets and summer reading lists).  Free time – just wandering out of the house after breakfast with no set agenda, and wandering back in at dusk – has largely gone by the wayside.  And that, my friends, seems to me a shame.

I remember with great fondness the summers of my childhood.  Growing up in a small town, with virtually no crime, has its advantages.  One of them is from the time you are 8 years old or so, you can ride your bike anywhere, and I did.  To the model shop downtown.  To the comic book store in the next town over.  To friends’ houses, near and far.  To whomever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go.  In that alone was a tremendous sense of freedom.

I was also blessed with a close friend to share my days with, a boy my age who lived right across the street.  We wandered the neighborhood together, searching out adventures, playing one on one tackle football, climbing the roof of his garage, collecting stones, building forts with old cardboard boxes, making up and singing silly songs, digging in the dirt.  We knew every short cut.  Between each house, where the fences were easy to hop, where rows of bushes would conceal you as you walked, precisely where to pop out from a yard and access the street so no one knew you had ever been there.  In our imaginations we had visited far-away lands, turned back invading armies, and discovered undiscovered secrets.  Those were full days!  We came home each night dirty, hungry, tired, and happy.  And looking forward to tomorrow.

As I got older, my summers did become more structured.  I was a camper, away for 4 weeks at the summer’s beginning, and then vacationed with my family for 2 weeks in August.  But the summer I turned 15 was different.  I was too old to be a camper, too young to be a counselor or CIT.  Soccer was my passion at the time, something I dreamed about all night and played all day.  We had moved to a new house and neighborhood, but again I was blessed with a close friend right across the street to share those long summer days with.  We woke up each morning and kicked the soccer ball around for an hour or so.  We had lunch at each other’s house, played more soccer in the afternoon, and had games in the early evening with our local team.  We talked about girls and tried to meet them.  We snuck a beer now and again.  There were epic neighborhood capture the flag games that would go well past dark.  We still rode our bikes, but a bit further.  Across the river to watch softball in the warm evenings.  Once or twice to parties where older kids showed us what we wanted to be and would be soon.  

It is a different time, and it is true that nostalgia can’t always be trusted.  But there is something to be said for walking out the door with no particular place to go and with no particular plan to follow.  What a wonderful way to live – maybe not forever, but at least for a summer.

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The Veneer

The Planet of the Apes movie franchise was a huge hit in the late 60s and early 70s, resulting in a series of 5 movies, a spin off TV show, toys, games, models, and even a guest spot for the star of the series, Roddy Mcdowall, on the Carol Burnett Show.  Coming out of the turbulent 60s, the films (especially the first installment, based on the Pierre Boulle novel) were often understood as an exploration of race relations.  What is the difference between one race and another?  Where do the trappings of power come from?  Is it destiny or fate that determines who dominates a culture, and who is dominated?

This summer, the Planet of the Apes franchise has made a come back.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has now grossed over 200 million dollars, and continues to do strong business.  The subtext of racial tension still plays at the heart of the movie, even now some 45 years after the original film starring Charlton Heston was released.  Sad to say, it is clear from the events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri since a policeman shot and killed a young African-American man that we still have a lot of work to do here in America on issues regarding race.

But there is another issue that the Planet of the Apes movies touch on, which we’ve also seen come to the fore in Ferguson.  And that is the thin veneer of civilization that we wear, as individuals, and also as a society.  Most of the time we live as law abiding citizens in a law abiding culture.  We are ‘civilized’ in the classic sense of that word – we have been brought out of a savage state.  The Planet of the Apes films, however, would suggest that we may not be that civilized after all, and that at the end of the day the difference between a human and an animal is not that extensive.  A policeman can shoot an unarmed citizen.  A neighborhood can erupt in flames and looting.  Put us in the right situation and we can all too easily cast aside the veneer of civility that coats us.  As it says in the Siddur (the prayer book) ‘a human has no advantage over a beast.’  

What Judaism teaches is that at the end of the day, there is one thing that distinguishes us from animals:  we have a conscious choice in terms of the actions we take.  Animals can operate only on instinct.  They can not override their natural feelings of aggression, or need to eat, or fear.  But what makes a human human is that he (or she) can do precisely that.  One of the reasons we fast on Yom Kippur is to remind ourselves that despite the fact that our instincts tell us to eat, we can decide not to do so.  That when we are angry, when we want to lash out, our intellect can pull us back from the brink and allow us to calm down.

I would like to believe that that is not a veneer, but rather is something that is under the surface of our humanity, a fundamental part of us that needs nurturing, but that is always there.  The Torah teaches that we are created ‘in the image of God.’  This in my mind can not mean that we look like God, because God has no physical being, no body.  So it must mean that we resemble God on the inside.  Our challenge always is to find that part of us, as individuals and also as a society, and to let it rise to the surface.


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Help, Hope, Healing

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/17/14

     In this morning’s Torah portion we find Moses in review mode, reminding the people about events that transpired as they wandered in the wilderness during the last 40 years.  As is his wont, Moses is unflinching in his recollections, and he does not shy away even from the most painful moments that he shared with the people.  In what we read this morning he rehashes for them the episode of the sin of the golden calf, speaking from his own perspective about how he experienced it and what transpired.

     In fairness to Moses, he is as unsparing in remembering his own actions as he is in telling the Israelites about what they did wrong, and in this morning’s portion he describes the moment when he shattered the two tablets that he brought down from the mountain.  You remember the story – Moses is called by God to the top of the mountain, spending 40 days and 40 nights there, receiving the Torah.  Down in the camp the people begin to get nervous, they haven’t seen their leader, and they go to Aaron demanding that he build for them an idol.  The calf is built from gold, and just as Moses is finishing his time with God the people begin to worship the calf.  Moses hurries down the mountain, and when he sees what is happening, out of anger, he takes the two sacred tablets, throws them to the ground, and shatters them.

     There is a rich midrashic tradition about these broken tablets, because it is impossible for the rabbinic mind to imagine that these sacred objects, arguably the most sacred objects in history, were just left scattered among the rocks and dirt of the Sinai wilderness.  And so the Talmud teaches that the Israelites went out and gathered up the broken fragments, kept them, and then placed in the sacred ark along with the second set of whole tablets.  In this way the broken tablets were revered, given a place of honor, and were not discarded.

     That image in my mind has always been such a powerful image – that in the sacred ark you had what was whole, but also what was broken.  In some ways it reminds me of a synagogue – a sacred space, like the ark is sacred, but a place where people who are broken can come for healing.  And any given day in a shul, any given service, you very well may have, sitting side by side, people who feel whole and complete, but also people who are struggling in their lives, who feel broken inside, and who are looking for hope.

     I worked in a place exactly like that for many years that was not a synagogue.  When I finished graduate school – for the first time – I moved to Boston with a freshly minted masters degree in psychology from the University of Maryland.  I found work in the area in a place called the Genesis Club, a state funded program that helped people with major psychiatric illness – schizophrenia, manic depression, bi-polar disorder – transition from the local state hospital back out into the community.  I haven’t been back there in many, many years, but the intense news coverage this week of Robin Williams’ suicide and his struggle with psychiatric illness has reminded me of my days working there, and also of many of the clients that I spent time with.   

     The Genesis Club was a place that was filled with wounded and broken souls.  These were people like you and me – people who had been walking along the path of life with potential, and goodness, with talent, and warmth – and suddenly their life journey was interrupted by the devastating illnesses they struggled with.  There was Jim, the young man who had gone to college on a baseball scholarship with a 90 plus mile an hour fastball and was a major league prospect, but now sat staring vacantly into space day in and day out; there was Bob, who had a phd in physics and had worked at NASA on the space shuttle project, but now spent his time sitting in our living room area scribbling equations on old scraps of paper;  there was Rich, a lovely guy with a terrific sense of humor, who took medication to help control the voices he had begun to hear out of a fan in his room one summer evening – and the list went on and on.  

     They came to us looking for two things – one was help – help learning some skills that might enable them to work a job, help balancing a check book, or finding a place to live, help with simple support for the practical day to day things that most of us take for granted.  That was the easy part – we trained them, we worked with them, we found them jobs and homes and a better quality of life.  But the other thing they came looking for was harder to find – that was hope – their hope had been extinguished, lost along the way, and they had all come to believe that there was no way for them to move forward in their lives.  They really were like the broken tablets – they were shattered, destroyed almost beyond recognition – and we knew they were still sacred, still deserving of the respect and dignity that every human being deserves – we knew it – but our challenge was to convince them that that was true.

     How do you help someone find hope?  It is a complicated recipe, with some basic ingredients but with different flavors for every person.  You treat them with dignity.  You give them a place to go and a community to be a part of.  You shake their hand and look them in the eye.  You take what they say seriously.  You play chess with them, and laugh with them.  You let them know that they are needed, that you care about them, not because they are a client, but because they are a person.  You go out to lunch with them, or to a concert, you help them find a job so they can feel independent.  At the end of the day what you do is remind them that even if they are broken, they are still people, and they are still sacred.  And when they begin to believe that, some of the broken pieces begin to come back together, and the hope that was dormant inside of them – little by little – begins to grow again.  And it was a beautiful thing to watch happen, and a powerful thing to be a part of.  

     There was one client there who taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  He was a young man, probably 20 or so, named Keith, very angry, often refused to take his meds, and he was prone to violent outbursts, generally physical, but he would yell and scream and he could erupt very suddenly, really not my cup of tea, but he was my client.  I got in the habit of staying away from him as much as possible – if I saw him down at the end of a hall I would take a quick turn into another room, that type of thing.  The truth is I was afraid of him, and it was so unpleasant to be with him I avoided him.

     One day the director of the program called me into his office, and he asked me about it.  And I said of everyone here, he is by far the most difficult person to deal with.  And the director said to me – you know what that means is that he needs you more than anyone else here.  And that has always stayed with me.  The next time I saw Keith at the end of the hall, I fought the urge to go in the other direction, and instead I walked towards him.  It wasn’t easy, and the truth is his behavior didn’t change much.  But it was the right thing to do.

      This is a week to remember that there are so many people out there who struggle with these illnesses.  They may be broken, but they are sacred.  They need both help and hope – and we should make sure that as a society we don’t duck away from them into a side room, but instead walk towards with open hands ready to help in any way that we can – 

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The Kerfuffle Over Knausgaard

I have found over the years in compiling my summer reading lists that inevitably I end up reading a book or two in the course of the summer that didn’t make the original list.  So it has been this summer, first with the Graham Nash autobiography Wild Tales, and this past week with the “autobiographical novel” My Struggle by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard.  If you love books and literature you’ve almost certainly crossed paths with Knausgaard (as fun as that is to type it is even more fun to say!).  His novels (so far there are 6 of them) have become the toast of literary Europe, translated now into 15 languages, and they are being devoured, one after the other, by readers around the globe.  The first two volumes are now available in the US in paperback.  It was volume one that I read this past week.

There has been some (relatively mild) controversy about the books.  Some folk say they are typical high literature works – well reviewed by the critics, but in reality rarely read by the general populace.  Perhaps like the other hot book of the summer, the French author Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, Knausgaard is an author people want to know about and be vaguely familiar with, but not actually read.  The books are hard to describe.  They are for the most past long and detailed descriptions of the day to day intimate details of the author’s life.  What he did on a particular New Year’s eve when he was 15. The first time he kissed a girl.  His struggle with a minor speech defect.  What music he listened to in high school, what clothes he wore when he went out.  How he felt the first time he got drunk.  The question of course is why would so many people be interested in reading this record of another person’s life, no more or less interesting than the life of the next person down the line?

I can think of a few answers to that question.  Let me first of all say that despite how it sounds, the book makes for enormously compelling reading.  The prose is fabulous (kudos to the translator).  But in some strange, difficult to explain, almost unnamable way, Knausgaard pulls you in.  My Struggle is actually a page turner, despite the fact that most of its pages describe mundane, everyday events.  Perhaps it is the subtext, the themes that exist just underneath the spare narrative, that pulls the reader into the Karl Ove vortex.  Death.  Creativity.  Love.  Parenthood.  Fear.  Honesty and integrity.  These are all central ideas that the book subtly yet at the same time profoundly explores.  And, no coincidence, these are all themes that most of us struggle with throughout our lives, day to day, hour to hour.  Hence, his struggle is actually ours.  But to look at our struggle from a safe distance, through the lens of another life, allows us to think about ourselves and who we are and how we live in a new way.

At the same time, there is a dark shadow in the book, a sense of fear and foreboding that can be sensed on almost every page.  There is a kind of monster lurking in My Struggle, at least in volume 1, and that monster is Knausgaard’s father.  His step on the stair causes a feeling of panic.  His presence in the house casts a pall over every conversation, every meal, every activity.  It is not a physical power that he wields, but a psychological one.  He is hated and feared by his sons, but at the same time revered and loved.  He holds them captive, and the ‘struggle’ of the title may very well be referring to Knausgaard’s fight to break free, and to live in the light that lies somewhere outside of the shadow that his father casts.

Of course for a rabbi just a month away from the High Holy Days, the novel brings to mind the Binding of Isaac story, read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Was this how Isaac felt about his father Abraham?  Was this the way Abraham felt about God?  Perhaps in one way or another we all have such powerful presences in our lives.  How we break the bonds that they create and reformulate those relationships can in some cases literally determine the course of our lives.  Somewhere in there might be a sermon.  Then again, around this time of year I tend to think there is a sermon somewhere in everything.  But I can’t worry about that now.  I’ve got to go out and get volume 2.  Time to start reading.  I wonder what Knausgaard is doing today?

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