Monthly Archives: December 2014

Year in Review (2014)

For those interested a statistical summary of this year’s blog – posts, hits, the whole nine yards.  This summary is automatically generated by wordpress, the blogging site.  Thanks to all those who took the time to read, comment, and care.  Very best for a healthy 2015.  Cheers!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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What Does God Have to Do With It?

You may remember the Tina Turner song “What’s Love Got to Do With It,’ from the 1984 album Private Dancer.  It was her biggest hit, clearly tapping into the early 80s Zeitgeist, the Reagan-esque idea that what matters is the surface level, that it is best to stay away from deeper thoughts and emotions.  All they do is drag us down, make us hesitate, perseverate, lead us away from the clear sighted vision of what is right and wrong, what our course of action should be.  And also it felt so old fashioned, so anti-modern, to worry about such things.  A lyric from the song captures that sense: ‘what is love but a sweet old fashioned notion?’  In the modern age, who has the time anyway?

I was reminded of the song over the last week when a series of op ed articles appeared in the NY Times.  It was Christmas week, and the articles, at least one of which was written by a Jew, were arguing for a ‘religious secularism,’ a way of embracing the values of the season – peace, generosity, kindness, caring, valuing our fellow – without actually understanding God as being a necessary part of this equation.  This season of the year reminds people that those values are appealing, but there is a perceived need today to decouple those values from any sense of the Divine.  What, indeed, does God have to do with it? Or maybe the real question is why should God have anything to do with it?

This is a question I regularly hear from people in the Jewish community.  Not asked in those specific words.  Instead, commonly phrased in the following way:  “Rabbi, I am not a religious person, but I believe in the values of Judaism – giving charity, the idea that all people are equal – those types of things.”  What they are saying is the humanistic values of Judaism appeal to them, but the rituals of Judaism (keeping kosher would be one example), and the sense of God in Judaism, not so much.  They know they can be a good person (certainly a Jewish value) without wrestling with the ‘God’ thing.

And it is true!  Undeniable!  You can certainly be a good, moral, upstanding person of quality without being religious.  You can do what is right, make the world a better and more peaceful place, transmit good values to your children and grandchildren, all without being religious, without ever setting foot in synagogue (or church for that matter), without observing religious rites and rituals.

But maybe there is more to it than that.  A spiritual depth that can be achieved through God-wrestling.  A sense of the world and the rhythms of life that religious ritual can open for our souls.  The ability to evaluate one’s life, one’s self, the quality of one’s character when standing before what is infinite and all-knowing.  Perhaps these things are not for everyone, but at the same time they should not be underestimated.  It is true they are ancient ideas, and maybe they are out of step with modern times.  But it may also be true that is precisely when ideas like this are being left behind that they are needed the most.

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A Jewish Christmas

An oxymoron?  Maybe once, but I am not so sure anymore.  This is purely anecdotal.  I have no hard data, and as far as I know no studies have been published.  But it seems to me that more and more Jews are ‘celebrating’ Christmas.

Certainly not in a religious sense.  The truth is, fewer and fewer Christians celebrate Christmas in a religious sense, making sure to get to services at some point during the Holy Day.  But it has become more than all of the old jokes about Chinese food and a movie.  Even a cursory glance through Facebook’s news feed suggests that Jews are ‘doing’ Christmas.  In some cases that means exchanging gifts with friends and family on the 25th of December.  In some cases it means a decorated evergreen tree in the house (what we once euphemistically called a “Hanukkah bush”).  And many Jewish families have ritualized Christmas, having annual family celebrations on Christmas eve or day, going to the same restaurant each year for a ‘Christmas’ dinner.

On the one hand, I understand it.  We’ve been fighting for so long to be just like everyone else, to be able to go to the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, work at the same jobs.  And Christmas is pervasive.  Ubiquitous.  And intensely commercialized, while all the while becoming more and more secularized.  And it’s secular form is so… nice.  Peace on earth and good will to all men, that sort of thing.  Very touchy feely.  Very easy.  No demands other than following our natural instinct (most of us anyway) to be kind hearted to our fellow travelers.  After all, you can leave the Jesus part out of it, and just enjoy the good cheer and warm spirit, the gift giving and the egg nog.  Can’t you?  If everyone else is, Jews seem to be saying, why can’t we?

But it is not so simple.  The peace on earth quote comes from the Christian Bible, the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2.  And isn’t there something wrong when more Jews observe Christmas in one way or another than Shavuot?  Or even Sukkot for that matter?  Christmas is a wonderful holiday with beautiful sentiments.  Let us respect it, but let us let our Christian brothers and sisters celebrate it.  Here another biblical quote, this from the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 19:  Be holy, for I the Lord your God an holy.  The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ is kaddosh, which most scholars believe originally meant ‘distinct.’  Different.  Other.  Apart.  Even – in fact maybe especially – on Christmas.

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What Makes a Great Rabbi?

I’ve just been told that Rabbi Harold Schulweis died today, one of the truly great American rabbis. He had a brilliant and creative mind. He was a talented preacher and teacher. He was a compassionate pastor to his congregants. He said what he believed, without fear of recrimination. He was strong willed, yet kind hearted. Intellectual, but with the ability to speak with and to the common Jew in the pew. He could share his doubts with you, and in so doing strengthen your faith. And he believed that Judaism has a transformative power and wisdom that can make the life of an individual, and even the world itself, a better and more sacred place.

As a young (ish) rabbinical student, Rabbi Shulweis made an impression on me that I will not soon forget. We were in LA where I started rabbinical school at the University of Judaism. I was working on a paper, and my teacher suggested I pick Rabbi Schulweis’ brain about my topic. I timidly called to set an appointment. It was with some trepidation that I arrived at his shul that afternoon, wondering how much time (or patience) the rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in the world would have for me. I was ushered into his office precisely on time. He asked me to take a seat, fixed me with an intense stare, and said “I am Harold Shulweis. How can I help you?”

He was generous and gracious. He answered every question I asked thoughtfully, he asked me about myself, my background, my family. I know from where I sit now that he had a thousand things to do and a million other things on his mind, but I never could have guessed that during the hour or more I spent with him now more than twenty years ago.

So what makes a great rabbi? Who the heck knows?! A sense of humor is a must. A good – and curious! – mind helps. A thick skin doesn’t hurt. It also helps ( a lot, I would say) to be real, to be who you actually are. When you aren’t people know it. Caring about people in general and the Jewish people in particular are probably requirements. A dash of patience is not a bad idea. Work ethic. A sense of the great mystery that is in this world. A little charisma on the side. Did I say a sense of humor? A commitment to challenging the status quo. The list could go on and on. But Harold Shulweis had it all. The complete package. The real deal. Our world is diminished by his loss. But the next world is even more glorious than before. May his family be comforted from his loss by remembering his life. And may his soul be bound up always in the bonds of life eternal.

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Let’s Talk

Not yell. Not accuse, or ignore, or get so angry that we lose respect for each other. Or call each other names. Just talk. With respect for each other’s intelligence, humanity, patriotic and/or Jewish bonafides. I understand it isn’t easy all the time. People feel so strongly about the issues. Some folks believe it is literally life and death, that everything is at stake, that if their view point does not carry the day, all will be lost. But isn’t possible – even remotely so – that something I have to say will be of value to you? That something you have to say will be of value to me? That we can learn from each other, grow deeper in wisdom and understanding?

Sadly the climate has become so polarized and politicized. And that rift, that divide, is exacerbated by the insanity of talk radio, the various and sundry pundits yelling and screaming over each other. But we don’t need to copy them. Reasonable heads should prevail. The question is can they? In all of the debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai in the Talmud (some 350 or so if my memory serves me right) Hillel was favored. Why? Because they were nicer! More respectful. Treated others better. Imagine that. The nice guys finished first.

It helps to have relationships with people. To know them, their families, their hearts, their cares and concerns. That makes it easier to talk, and it makes it easier to agree to disagree if that is what it comes to. I try to stand in the other person’s shoes. What are their concerns? Where are they coming from? Generally you can see it, even feel it, whether you agree or not.

To a certain extent you have to have thick skin to be a rabbi. My feeling is if you are afraid to offend someone when you speak, you might never say anything worth while. Not that it isn’t worth while to tell people to be good, to be moral, to give charity, to be faithful to one another and to God. But shouldn’t the rabbi let people know what he or she thinks the tradition has to say about the pressing issues of the day? Judaism has something to teach us about gun control, abortion, civil rights, racism, torture, the list goes on and on. Shouldn’t we, as Jews, be informed about these issues from the perspective of our own tradition?

So let’s talk. We might surprise each other. And who knows? Maybe you are right, and I am wrong. Stranger things have certainly happened.

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December 14, 2014 · 10:11 pm

The Senate Report on the CIA

this a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/13 –

The Bible is intimately familiar with the human capacity for violence.  It is concerned with both psychological and physical violence, and that record begins with the very first human beings, Adam and Eve, who betray and blame each other when God accuses them of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Things get worse in the next generation, when psychological violence turns physical as the Torah tells us about the first murder in human history, Cain’s killing of Abel.

I’ve always felt that one of the most striking verses in the entire Bible is Cain’s response when God asks him where his brother Abel has gone – השומר אחי אנוכי he says – am I my brother’s keeper?  And in a way the Torah is a record of how hard it is for human beings to answer that question.  Think of the violence throughout Genesis, from one generation to the next.  In Noah’s time the entire earth is described as being filled up with human violence.  In the cycle of Abraham stories there is kidnapping, war, and rape, let alone the story of the binding of Isaac where Abraham raises a knife against his own son.  In the Jacob cycle the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s sons killing the residents of Schechem, and then in this morning’s Torah portion the brother against brother violence perpetrated against Joseph.

You remember the story well, one of the best known in the Torah, of the coat of many colors.  It is given as a gift by Jacob to Joseph, his second youngest son, and his older brothers become jealous and angry enough to actually conceive of taking their brother Joseph’s life.  When Joseph goes to track them down in the wilderness they have their opportunity, and although most of the brothers want to actually kill Joseph, in the end he is saved because Reuben and Judah argue that he should be spared.  Even so, they sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver, and he is taken away.  When they go back to their father Jacob to tell him his beloved son Joseph has been killed, the rhetorical question that Cain asked of God generations earlier still hangs in the air – ‘are we’ Joseph’s brothers might just as well have said – ‘our brother’s keeper?’  And of course the unsaid answer is ‘we are not.’

Am I my brother’s keeper?  Even today it is amazing how difficult it often is for us to answer that question in the affirmative. I wonder if that question ever crossed the minds of the CIA operatives and government officials who were involved with interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or in other American holding stations around the world.  When the administration officials were signing off on the program, did they ever ask that question – am I my brother’s keeper?  When the interrogators were keeping a prisoner awake for 100 straight hours, or water boarding a prisoner until he needed to be revived as this week’s Senate report details, did they ask themselves the question ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’

I’ve always felt the cruelest moment in this morning’s Torah portion is not the selling of Joseph into slavery, but instead when his brother’s cast him into a pit in the dessert.  The Torah makes a point to tell us there was no water that pit.  If you’ve been on a trip to Israel you know how dry it is in the midbar, in the wilderness, how important it is to drink, to keep water with you at all times.  Here is Joseph in the pit, in the wilderness, in the heat of the day, suffering.  What do his brothers do?  וישבו לאכול לחם – they sat down, just near by, where he could hear them, and they ate and drank, enjoying a meal.  Did the CIA interrogators work on a prisoner for 2 or 3 hours, and then take a break and sit in the next room and eat lunch?  Am I my brother’s keeper?

I heard on the radio during the week a man being interviewed who had served on the CIA’s legal team during the time when the interrogation program was put into operation.  He was using the term EITs, and he said it over and over and over again.  I realized after a moment or two that it was an acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques, the euphemism the CIA used for torture.  And this fellow didn’t even want to say ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ he didn’t even want to use the euphemism, so he was using a euphemism for the euphemism.  And that is how it gets easy to say I am NOT my brother’s keeper.  That is how it gets easy to create a systematic program for dehumanizing others.  If the folks on the CIA legal team were walking around saying ‘we have a torture program’ someone might have said ‘what is going on around here?’  But instead they were walking around saying we are using ‘EIT techniques.’  Well that doesn’t sound so bad – EIT – how bad could it be?

Well now we know how bad it was.  We know that there was a systematic program run by the CIA to dehumanize other people though the use of techniques that can only be described as torture.  That is what we know now.  What we need to remember – and what we hopefully will be able to use this as an opportunity to remember, or re-learn, or de-discover – is that when you dehumanize someone else, you yourself become less human.  It doesn’t matter if the person is a prisoner.  It doesn’t even matter if the person is a terrorist.  When you torture your own moral code begins to break down.  Your own values begin to fail.  Your own judgement begins to waiver.  Your own character begins to break.  And I would say that applies to the individual who does the torturing, the organization that creates the program, and also to the society that condones it.

John McCain said it best in the powerful speech he gave from the Senate floor in response to the report – “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”

When Jacob’s sons bring him the torn and bloodied coat of many colors, Jacob cries out a חיה רעה has eaten my son!  An evil beast.  Some commentators suggest that Jacob knew what his sons had done to Joseph, and what he was really saying was the evil beast inside of you devoured your brother.  The CIA report shows us how easy it is for the evil beast to raise its ugly head.  The challenge now is to look it directly in the eye, to know it and name it, even to own it – because then and only then can we move forward, and make sure that that beast has no space to dwell in our country, in our men and women, in our institutions.

This is a task not just for the government, not just for a Senate committee, not just for one organization.  It is a task for all of us, something we all have a stake in, and something we should all feel a sense of responsibility for.  Here are the words of John F Kennedy in the speech he gave following the desegregation of the University of Alabama in 1963, a moment in American history that he called a ‘moral crisis:’   “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Let us remember those words in the months and years ahead, and let our great nation use them as a beacon of light during dark times, as a source of moral clarity and vision for all times –

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