Monthly Archives: November 2014

Strangers in a Strange Land part 2 – Michael Brown

A quick scan through FB this morning and it is clear that the Michael Brown tragedy has become one of these divisive liberal versus conservative issues.  Many of the standard arguments are being hauled out and rehashed, many of the old accusations are flying, and the deep anger and resentment that exists between the two sides is brimming over.  Talk about fear of the stranger.

To dwell in that space of clearly defined ideologies in the end will get us no where fast.  This should not be a conversation about a specific event, about the killing of one man by a police officer.  What happened with Michael Brown is a piece of a much larger conversation that we should be having about race, about the tension, mistrust, and misunderstanding between communities.  And the bottom line is that we have not figured out how to have that conversation.  If we had, if the conversation was real, ongoing, productive, if the two sides felt a connection and a common purpose, we would be able to talk about Michael Brown’s killing without screaming at each other and accusing each other, we would be able to protest his death without setting fires in the streets and destroying communities, while at the same time destroying hope.

But we are afraid.  We are afraid of what we don’t know, and of who we don’t know.  We are afraid of what might change if we did know, if we struggled to understand.  We are afraid of being taken out of our comfort zones, of not being able to rely on the tried and tested tropes that we use to contextualize these moments.  We are afraid of the other, of what is strange to us, of what is different.

Can we relinquish that fear, or will we give in to it?

The Talmud teaches that God decided to create all humans from one parent so that a person would not say to another ‘my father is greater than yours.’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)  We all have a stake in this conversation.  We all need it, regardless of race, economic status, religion, nationality.  If we give in to the fear we are all diminished, God’s presence obscured.  Esau and Jacob were estranged.  Brothers, from the same father, but brothers who hated and mistrusted one another, who were afraid of each other, who had abused each other.  But there was reconciliation.  Painful, difficult, halting, but reconciliation nonetheless.  When they warily approached each other after 20 years, Jacob said to Esau – “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

Let us look for that in the face of the stranger.  It is there, if we can but see it.

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Strangers in a Strange Land

What a provocative phrase! It comes from Exodus 2 (verse 22), and is Moses’ explanation of the name he chooses for his son, Gershom. ‘Ger’ – stranger – and ‘shom’ there. In that one word is an expression of Moses’ particular dilemma, representative of every Jew’s dilemma, and the dilemma of the Jewish people as well. To be a stranger in a land not your own, an outsider in a place where you dwell but are not fully connected. To be other. We come from Abraham, the ‘Ivri,’ the one from beyond.

The Torah does not shy away from this core fact of Jewish life, in fact it uses this idea as a constant reminder to us to care for those less fortunate. Time and again the Torah tells us we have a special responsibility to watch out for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger “because we were slaves in Egypt.” We know what that feels like to be other, to be the stranger, and so should be extra-sensitive to those who share that experience.

Over the last week or so a series of stories that have been in the news remind me of how difficult the issue of the stranger is in our culture still today. The killing of Michael Brown, the young black man from Ferguson Missouri, is at least in part a story of what can happen when we fear what we are not, when we are afraid and estranged from the other. At its heart, racism also comes from that kind of fear, and the Michael Brown tragedy is deeply connected to issues of race.

Fear of the other is also at the heart of a ‘nationalities bill’ that is making its way through the Israeli political system, having been approved by the Israeli cabinet this week. As currently constituted, the bill would create a licit distinction between Jews and Arabs, with a two tiered citizenship structure that favors Jews. There are many ways to let the stranger know he is unwelcome, and giving him a different legal status is one tried and tested method.

Finally, there is the issue of conversion to Judaism, which has become contentious particularly in the Orthodox community over the last number of years. A NY Times column this week by a brave Orthodox rabbi about making the conversion process more open and less exclusive and intimidating will raise some hackles in the Orthodox world.

Over the next few days I’ll write a short blog about each of these stories – Michael Brown, the Israel ‘nationality bill,’ and conversion to Judaism. In each case the perception and fear of the other plays a central role. We were strangers in Egypt. I am wondering how well we remember that experience, and the lesson it is supposed to teach us.


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Here Comes the Bride

I am coming off a stretch of 5 weddings the last 6 Saturday nights.  You might think after a while it all becomes like an assembly line.  Arrive 20 minutes before the ceremony is scheduled to start.  Park the car.  Find where the bridal party is so the pre-ceremony rituals can be enacted.  Help the witnesses sign the ketubah.  Wait at the head of the procession line as the coordinator makes sure everything is ready to go and the right music is playing.  Walk down the isle.  Make sure everything on the table is there, ready for use – the wine, the kiddush cups, the glass to break.  Chant the prayers, sip the wine, exchange the rings, proclaim the vows, seven blessings, another sip of wine, wrap it up.  It doesn’t change.  For them it is (often) the first time, and hopefully the last.  For me?  I don’t even know.  I would guess 10-15 weddings a year, times 16 years in the rabbinate, would make around 200 weddings, give or take.

Amazingly, it never grows old.  I am not saying I enjoy the time demands, the schlepping out one Saturday night after another.  I don’t stay for the receptions – how could I?  But there is something about it that is incredibly compelling.  Two human beings see something in each other that enables them to say ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  The good, the bad.  The tough times and the easy ones.  The simhas and the sorrows.  You are the one.  There is something about you I trust so deeply, respect so fully, and love so completely that I think we can do this together, this life thing.  Even though I know it might not work out, I am willing to give it a try.

What a leap of faith it is to stand with another person at the Huppah!  It is so human, so incredibly audacious, so filled with joy and terror and hope and heart.  I think that is why God comes, why one of the Huppah’s symbolic meanings is God’s presence with the bride and groom.  What more compelling human moment could there be?  Even God is drawn to it, even God wants to witness it, to be connected to it.

And to share in it, to officiate at it, is one of the great privileges of the rabbinate, no question about it.  Powerful currents flow through the sacred space that the Huppah carves out.  From the bride and groom, their parents, their family and friends.  When you are in it, when it is happening, you can’t help but be caught up in it all.

I’ve had all kinds of crazy things happen at weddings.  A best man who didn’t speak English once threw the glass at the groom, not understanding my gestures to lay it down at the groom’s feet (it was a whisky tumbler, but everyone emerged OK!).  One time a best man forgot the wedding rings.  Left them in the hotel, which was not where the ceremony was.  We borrowed some from the attendees, right there during the ceremony.  I’ve had fainting brides (twice).  Fainting fathers of brides.  Not yet a fainting rabbi.  As I always say to the couples, regardless of what happens, at the end of that evening you are going to be married.  And they are, despite fainting, flying glasses and forgotten rings.

The moment that always gets me – every single time – is when the bride enters the room.  Everyone waits in anticipation.  The door opens with a dramatic flourish, and there she stands.  Emotion surges through the room.  I don’t know exactly what it is about that moment.  The dress?  The vision of the bride, in the distance, the veil, over her face?  I just don’t know, but it takes my breath away.  Every single time.


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A New Judaism?

An article that appeared in last week’s Sunday NY Times by James Carroll called ‘Jesus and the Modern Man” has me thinking about Judaism’s role in modern life. Carroll argues that the new Pope, with his popular touch, is helping the average Catholic in the pew to regain a sense of the potential power of the Church in his or her life. Carroll sees the Pope as returning his faith to its roots, namely the life of Jesus, with his message of love, hope, and inclusion for all people.

What, then, would be our message? A Jewish message for the soundbite age, Judaism at its essence, ‘standing on one foot?’ Without a Pope figure to direct the Jewish theological enterprise, and without a Jesus figure to create the image of an ideal life driven by ideal values, where do we stand?

One thing we know is that on many levels our problems and the problems of the Church are similar. Dwindling attendance at services. Diminished registration in our religious schools. Fewer people identifying with our faith traditions. At the heart of it all is a malaise of modern life – fewer and fewer people take religion seriously. Religious life is becoming anachronistic, the wives’ tales and superstitions of a previous age, not suited to modern life and modern sensibilities.

What then, will be a Judaism for the modern man? We are seeing early glimmers of an answer to that question. It may be less synagogue based, and more social action and social justice oriented. The emphasis will be on doing good rather than being good. Traditional rituals may fade away (wearing tefilin, for example) while new rituals may become important in people’s lives (baby namings and b’not mitzvah two current notable examples). Prayer may be replaced by meditation. Lectures by walks. Lunch and learns by cooking classes and wine tastings.

The sage Hillel famously took a stab at creating a one line description of Judaism’s essence: what is hateful to you, do not do to others. Not bad, but not sufficient. What about the impulse to challenge the status quo, so central to Judaism’s approach? Or another core tenet, responsibility for caring for the underprivileged? The importance of a day of rest, so the mind and spirit can rejuvenate and grow? Of course the list could go on and on.

Interestingly, these are all values that still speak to us in the modern world. What we need to do is somehow convince people that Judaism’s ancient wisdom can still bring meaning into their modern lives. Prayer can be powerful and life changing! Study of sacred text can deepen your spiritual life! Ritual can ground you and give structure to your days! Of course we don’t have a Pope to deliver that message, or a Jesus figure to galvanize the uninitiated or disenfranchised. The Jewish message for modern man has to come from Jewish leaders – clergy, Jewish professionals, lay leaders as well. Our challenge is that we cannot deliver that message in a soundbite. But a TED talk? Maybe. At least it is a place to start. Just don’t ask me to do it standing on one foot.

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54 Days

Been going back and forth a bit about this one and whether to post, and if so what to say. In part I worry that any comments about the topic (which I realize I haven’t identified yet) will be perceived of as some kind of kvetching. And maybe I am kvetching (is that cathartic?). But an article that appeared this week in the Forward about the stress and strain of rabbinic service, along with my own recent experience of working 54 straight days, leads me to believe that this is an issue those who care about the Jewish community should be talking about more often and more openly. Perhaps this post will become part of that conversation.

I know a fair number of people who work hard. Many hours, much pressure, expected to manage unmanageable responsibilities. The rabbinate often has all of this. But two things distinguish rabbinic work from other professions. One is that the vast majority of professionals have defined days off. The rabbi may have a designated day off (only one day, mind you!), but she often has to work on that day. Funerals and Brises come up. You can’t say to a family ‘sorry I can’t do your father’s funeral that day, I can’t make it to your newborn’s bris – it is my day off.’ Sometimes meetings happen on that day that you need to be at. Other times you’ve been so busy that you need your ‘off day’ to catch up on your work! Looking through my calendar I figure I end up working about half of my days off (my wife will tell you more). Not always the entire day, not 8 hours (or 10 or 12, which I often work on regular days), but still working. Have to put on a suit and tie. Take time that you expected to spend on something else – family perhaps? – and use it for work. The fact that I just worked 54 consecutive days means by definition that I worked 7 straight days off (one per week) in that stretch.

This piece is connected to the other thing that is unique about rabbi’s schedules, namely, in large part we do not have control over them. Obviously this is not entirely true. But not uncommonly we receive a call that requires us to change around our entire day’s schedule, or possibly even our week’s schedule. Cancel appointments, work on an evening when we had planned to be home with our families, even take time that we hoped to use to prepare a sermon or a class and use that time to meet an immediate, pressing need. And of course every canceled appointment has to be rescheduled. The sermon has to be written. The class has to be prepped. The problem is I am already booked tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, schedule full. Well, I have time on the afternoon of my off day because I haven’t scheduled anything … See how this works?

Last spring my wife had a big birthday that coincided with Mother’s Day. A year or so before I blocked the day, determined to do something nice with my wife. As the months went by, I was pressed to officiate at two different weddings and multiple unveilings on that day, and I refused, keeping the day clear. It was a great day. In the end, we took two of our kids with us on a day trip (our oldest was away at college.) We walked, we talked, we shopped a bit, saw some sights, ate out together. What families do on their Sundays, I guess. I loved every minute of it. But I also remember at some point in the afternoon that it all felt so strange. Why? Because it was the first time I had done something like that with my family (when not on vacation and out of town) in years. Many years – in fact I can’t remember the last time.

Another anecdote. Our son (our middle child) is off to college this year. He had a fall break of a full week in October (something more schools seem to be doing). I was looking forward to having him home, to spending a bit of time with him and catching up. But it was a particularly busy week. A couple of funerals, a Saturday night wedding, shiva minyanim that of course were not planned. I was out of the house early, home late every night. All of a sudden I realized that he was leaving the next day. I had literally barely seen him. You probably know the Harry Chapin song Cats in the Cradle. I felt like I was living it.

These are my personal regrets, the things I wonder and worry about, the doubts creeping in about whether I should have done it differently. At the end of the day every thing is a trade off, but not every trade off is worth it. The bottom line is this dynamic is shared by many rabbis (many clergy folk in general), and it is not healthy. It isn’t good for the rabbi, it isn’t good for the congregation, and it isn’t good for the community. I am not sure what to do about it, but I intend to spend some time wrestling with it in the coming months. Thank goodness I have wonderful lay leadership and supportive and talented colleagues. I’ll come back to this topic off and on as I navigate it a bit. And I will keep you ‘posted.’


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A Winter’s Tale

Or book. Or books. For many years now I have put together a summer reading list that I post for the congregation. Folks seem to enjoy it, and some people even read some of the books on the list. The summer is a natural time for reading. We imagine ourselves enjoying long relaxing days on the beach, alternating naps in the warm sun with sitting in a beach chair, reading a good book, the unceasing waves gently lapping at the shore.

But the winter is also a good reading time.  Deep winter especially.  With long, dark nights, falling temperatures, the wind whistling outside through leaveless tree branches.  Snuggled in a chair under a blanket, perhaps with a dram of whisky by your side.  Here are two books I hope to read over the next weeks, as winter comes in.

The first is a classic ‘rabbi’s must read.’  Entitled ‘At Home in Exile,’ this new book by Alan Wolfe (professor of political science at Boston College) is an exploration of the importance of the diaspora Jewish community.  The subtitle of the book is Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, and the author dares to suggest that there are some things important, in fact perhaps even necessary, about diasporic Judaism.  After all, in large part Judaism is what it is today because of the experience of living in the Diaspora.

The second book is fiction.  Science fiction, in fact, a genre that is rapidly growing in respectability.  Michel Faber’s ‘the Book of Strange New Things’ chronicles a young clergyman who is sent to a far away planet to preach and teach faith to the native alien population.  How could a rabbi resist that storyline?

So there you have it.  Two books I’ll be reading through this winter.  I expect another one or two might make the list, but it is getting late, and I have a lot of reading to do.

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Flood, Fire, Climate Change

here a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (11/8/14)

Interstellar is the name of a new big budget science fiction movie that opens this weekend starring Matthew M.  The premise of the story is that humankind has used up virtually all of earth’s natural resources.  Climate change has wrought destruction across the globe.  Unpredictable storms rage, famine is out of control, and humankind, in a short period of time, is looking at the literal end of the world.   A crack team of astronauts is recruited and sent into deep space with the hope that they can find new worlds that will either be habitable for humans or give humans the resources they ned to survive.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t tell you what happens exactly, but the early reviews have been very positive.

But as well made as the movie may be, Interstellar is hardly original.  Over the years Hollywood has produced dozens of post apocalyptic movies that deal with various end of the world scenarios, from the Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 to Planet of the Apes in the late 60s, and The Road just a few years ago and World War Z just last year. And the truth is human interest in the end of the world – what it would look like, how it would happen, who would survive – is at least as old as the Bible, and probably quite a bit older than that.  If you think of our Torah readings from the last few weeks we have not one, but two end of the world scenarios that play central roles in the biblical narrative.  What are they?

Just a few weeks ago we read about the flood that God brings to destroy the earth, and in this morning’s Torah portion we have the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is true that with the flood it is the entire world that is destroyed, and with Sodom and Gomorrah just a single city, but biblical commentators have long noticed the parallels between the two stories – 1. destruction by natural elements, in one case water in the other fire.  2. in each story a population is destroyed, while one family is saved – with the flood Noah’s family, with Sodom and Gomorrah Lot’s.  3. Also at the conclusion of both stories the male survivor becomes drunk, and in his drunkenness commits a sexually immoral act.  4.  And finally both stories understand that the reason the destruction comes about  – whether by flood or by fire – is because of human action.  In the flood story we read “God said to Noah ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness מפניהם because of them.’”  And in this morning’s portion, when describing the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, that same sentiment is expressed by God – “the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!”  In both stories destruction may come at the ‘hands’ of God, but it is brought about by the actions of human beings.

We may read these stories today and struggle to make sense of them, because we don’t have a reward and punishment theology, we don’t believe that God will judge humankind and finding us wanting bring about mass destruction – and that is the core narrative of both stories.  But what I would like to do for a moment with you this morning is to take God out of the stories – I know that may seem like a strange thing for a rabbi to do – but just for a moment think about the stories without God.  In both cases the narrative would be something like this:  human kind becomes destructive, lawless, dangerous, out of control, unaware of the consequences of its actions, and then something happens – a flood, a fire storm – that brings about terrible destruction.  And that actually is exactly the narrative of Hollywood’s end of the world movies.  Humankind has lost its way – its moral purpose, its ethical compass – and commonly we introduce an agent ourselves that threatens our existence.  A micro-organism that turns people into zombies, a nuclear weapon that wipes out a city, a deadly plague for which there is no cure – or, in the case of Interstellar, climate change, which in the movie has destroyed the environment to the point where it cannot be repaired.  Crops cannot grow.  There are fewer and fewer hospitable places for people to live.  There are terrible storms, unending droughts, tidal waves.  It is a picture of a world gone haywire, and on the edge of being swept away.

Fifteen or twenty years ago that picture of the world on the verge of destruction because of climate change would have seemed just as fantastic and impossible as a world where people turned into zombies.  But today we understand that climate change is not only real, it is serious and growing more and more dangerous by the year.  This week the United Nations released a fifth and final report by its specially appointed panel charged with scientifically investigating the causes of climate change and its potential long term effects.  The report did not paint a pretty picture, and perhaps most alarming of all of its findings is that the window of time in which we can begin to limit the warming of our planet is shrinking rapidly.  According to the report emissions of greenhouse gases caused by humans have to be brought under control within 30 years in order to ward off effects that could be devastating across the globe.  I don’t need to tell you that 30 years is not the distant future.  As Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sang ‘the future is here, we are it, and we are on our own.”

The challenges are daunting.  A solution to this problem will require global cooperation.  Essentially every major nation in the world will have to work together, create standards together, and agree to abide by those standards as quickly as possible.  Resources – from food to financial  – may need to be allocated on a global scale.  On the surface it sounds impossible, too big to even get our heads around, let alone to begin to work these issues out and make progress.  But it has to be done, and it has to be done now.  As it says in the Mishnah, אם אין אכשיו אימתי – if not now, when?  One thing I know for sure is this – if we don’t start, we’ll never finish.

What can be done?  First, we must be aware, knowledgable, and engaged.  We should let our elected officials know that this is an issue we care deeply about.  Political leaders are much more likely to get things done when the think their constituents truly care.  Next week international delegates from around the globe will convene in Lima Peru in the hopes of creating a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  If they can successfully complete their work that will be a first step on a long road, but it will at least be a step in the right direction.

And America has to lead the world in this process, through words and through actions.  The President has been meeting with Republican leaders all week after Tuesday’s elections, and both sides are saying that they want to find common ground to get something done for the American people and to move the country in the right direction.  I hope the issue of climate change will find a way into their discussions.  If it does and they are able to make real progress on arguably the most important issue in the world today, it won’t only be good for America and Americans – it will be a blessing for all people, in all places. –

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