Category Archives: Jewish thought

Imagination

a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –

As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are.  On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work.  In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago.  The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then.  But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.

It is an astonishing thing to think about.  Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics.  Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments.  He would, for example – in his mind! –  put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light.  And then he asked himself questions.  If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space?  How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things?  And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.

These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time.  His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in.  It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.

It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work.  Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures.  To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown.  But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination.  Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone.  But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure.  In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.

Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education.  But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people.  Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’

This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well.  Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods.  But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God.  And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.

It was the same for Moses.  Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life.  But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free.  And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.

And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel.  Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being.  And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility.  The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew.  But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey.  And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards.  And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.

Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world.  On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves.  On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation.  And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.

In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly –  but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be.  And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all.  As Einstein himself said:  “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”

Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach

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Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/19/17 –

One hundred and thirty one years ago next month the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism in the following way:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”

It wasn’t until 17 years later that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are of course the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.

The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

I’ve often wondered during the last week what Emma Lazarus would have thought about our current debate over the DACA law (deferred action for childhood arrivals) and the so called ‘Dreamers.’  I imagine you have followed the news.  DACA was put into place 5 years ago by then President Obama, and its intention was to enable children whose parents who had come to this country illegally to become legitimate citizens.  This week it was announced that the DACA protections would expire in 6 months, and if congress does not act (which it seems virtually incapable of) it is possible that as many as 800,000 young adults, who have grown up in this country, many of whom have jobs, or are in school full time, would be deported.

Of course like with everything these days the debate has become intensely politically charged, and there are also legal arguments being made on both sides.  But I wonder what Emma Lazarus would have thought in terms of the values that are being expressed in this national conversation.  Because at the end of the day this debate really is about values.  What do we want this country to symbolize, to stand for?   What ideals do we hope the citizens of this country believe in?  At the heart of this conversation is a question of whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 134 years ago.

There can be no question that caring for the stranger is a primary value of the Torah’s.  There are no fewer than 46 references to the stranger in the Torah, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.  And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers is a measure of that culture’s quality.  There is an odd verse in this morning’s Torah portion.  In a series of curses, of bad things that will happen to the Israelites if they don’t obey God, you find the following:  והיית ממשש בצהרים כאשר ימשש העור באפלה – you will grope about in the daylight in the same way a blind man gropes about in the darkness.  And the commentators are puzzled.  Because what difference does it make to a blind man whether it is night or day, dark or light?

The Talmud provides a wonderful answer.  If a blind man is groping about in the darkness, no one else can see that man to help him.  But in daylight others will see him struggling, and they will come to him to help him find his way.

And that is where we are.  We are at a crossroads, not just with DACA, but in so many other ways, of deciding what kind of nation we want to be, what kind of values we want to embrace.  Do we want to be the kind of country where we grope about in the dark, each person trying to fend for him or herself, unable or unwilling to help one another?  Not able to truly see the other?  Or do we want to be the kind of nation that seeks the light, a light that is symbolized by the torch held up in the hand of Lady Liberty, so that when one of us stumbles, when when of us needs help, when one of us can’t see a way forward, he or she is embraced by others, and welcomed home?

What do we sing in the Sim shalom paragraph of the amidah?  כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us God a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.

May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead –

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An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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A Contemporary 10 Commandments

This a text version of my sermon from day 1 of Shavuot –

There is a long standing debate about the precise date of the events that we read about in this morning’s Torah portion.  Most biblical scholars believe the Exodus happened somewhere around the year 1300 BCE, give or take a couple of hundred years.  If they are correct it would mean that our ancestors were standing at Sinai some 3,300 years ago when Moses walked up to the top of the mountain, and God proclaimed the words of the 10 commandments.

So it is amazing to me that 3,300 years after the words were spoken, they still remain relevant in our lives.   We understand that if we can follow at least these 10 laws, we will be on the track to living a moral and ethical life.  And what is more, the 10 commandments are understood as a sort of foundational guide for the basis of a civilized society, at least in western culture.

All that being said, and with all due respect, the list of laws we read this morning is 3,300 years old.  Since the commandments came into being the world has changed dramatically, and the Israelites who first followed the commandments as their moral code would not even recognize the world we live in today.  So this morning I would like to offer a contemporary version of the 10 commandments.  This is not meant to replace the originals, but rather to help us think about how the words that Moses recorded so long ago can continue to bring meaning and guidance into our lives.

The first of the commandments – אנוכי ה׳ אלוקך – I am the Lord your God – is understood by Maimonides as a commandment about belief – we must believe in God is therefore the first of the 10.  I would like to understand that in today’s terms to mean that we need to have a spiritual dimension in our lives.  We are beings that exist on three levels.  There is a physical level of our existence.  We must eat, we must sleep, we must keep our bodies healthy in order to live.  We are physical creatures living in a physical world.  But we also are intellectual beings.  We think, we create, we ponder, we are curious about the world around us, we problem solve – this is our intellect at work.  But Judaism teaches that mind and body alone are not sufficient to live a fully human life – you also must have a soul.  And without those three parts working together – body, mind, and soul – we are not complete.  Commandment #1 – the spiritual dimension of life.

The second commandment is לא יהיה לך אלוקים אחרים – do not have other gods before Me.  This is commonly understood as the prohibition of idol worship, long considered one of the gravest sins a Jew could commit.  In our culture today we might rarely if ever be tempted to worship an actual idol.  That being said there are many metaphoric idols that can creep into our lives.  Money and power come to mind right away.  Ego might be another.  Work can become an idol.  So can material goods.  The list could go on an on.  So commandment #2 – be aware of the idols in contemporary life, and remember it is just as much of a sin to worship them as to worship an actual idol.

The third commandment?  לא תשא את שם ה׳ אלוקיך לשב – do not take God’s name in vain.  I’ll understand that to mean that certain things in our lives should be sacred, and they should not be wasted.  Trust would be one of those.  Our relationships another.  Our reputations as well.  Our God given talents.  When we squander these things , when we use them for vain purposes, we are less holy, we diminish ourselves, and we diminish God, in Whose image we are created.

Number four – זכור את יום השבת – remember the Sabbath day!  We need time to think and be, without the constant distractions and interruptions that have become so prevalent in modern life.  If we can carve out 24 hours a week to be screen free – no phones, no computers – we will be healthier, happier, and holier, and will have a deeper sense of peace about ourselves and our lives.

Five?  כבד את אביך – honor your father and mother.  In a world where we are living longer and longer lives, this commandment can be the basis for the moral conversation we need to have about aging with dignity.  It is a complicated conversation that touches on topics as wide ranging as medical care, assisted suicide, and how ‘quality of life’ is defined.  But the idea of honoring our elders can be a touchstone as we tackle these difficult issues.

Commandment #6 – לא תרצח – do not murder.  For contemporary times I would like to expand this commandment beyond the scope of the individual, and understand it as applying to entire communities.  There are cities all around the country with unbelievably high murder rates – Baltimore is one of them.  The sixth commandment reminds us that if we live in one of these communities, even if we don’t kill someone ourselves, we should feel a sense of responsibility for what is happening, and should work to make our communities safer and less violent.

לא תנאף – is commandment #7.  Do not commit adultery.  In a time when marriage is being challenged on multiple fronts, and when marriage rates in America are the lowest they’ve ever been, the Torah reminds us that a committed, long term relationship with a single person is a meaningful and even more importantly sacred way to live a life.

Number eight?  לא תגנב – do not steal.  We have grown accustomed to having virtually everything we want.  But there is a difference between what you want, and what you need.  If we can remember that distinction, if we can remember what it is we truly need – health, people to share our lives with, safety, a place to live and food to eat – than we would not be tempted to take what does not belong to us.

The ninth commandment is לא תענה ברעך עד שקר – do not testify falsely.  Which I will understand in this contemporary 10 commandments to be a message about truth.  Sometimes it seems like truth itself is under siege today – the phrase ‘alternate facts’ comes immediately to mind.  There are times when we may not know exactly what happened, or when facts are not entirely clear.  But often the truth can be determined and known.  The ninth commandment reminds us that truth is still a sacred value, and that when we honestly examine our lives, ourselves, and our world, the truth can often be discovered.

And finally, commandment #10 – לא תחמד – do not covet, do not be envious.  Commentators have long noted that envy is one of the most destructive emotions, and can lead to the breaking of a series of other commandments, for a person who is envious might lie, steal, commit adultery, and even murder.  In today’s world the best antidote to envy is gratitude, and in Judaism gratitude comes from understanding that everything we have is a gift from God.

So there you have it, my contemporary 10 commandments.  Again, not to replace the originals, but with the hope of reminding us again on this Shavuot of how relevant these ancient words can still be in our lives, and of what a great gift the Torah we celebrate today truly is.

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Just the Evidence, Ma’am

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17

Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s.  Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name?  Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys.  There was very little actual action in the show.  Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal.  But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts.  And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it?  Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world.  The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers.  There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases.  There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie.  And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.

So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant.  There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated.  Something either happened or it didn’t.  A person said something, or they didn’t say something.  If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.

But today we seem to be in a different place.  Facts are debated, not accepted.  People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did.  This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level.  Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud.  But the left does it too.  You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service.  There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage.  Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service.  The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong.  To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.

And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us.  Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened.  The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried.  And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true.  Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered.  Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.

The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case.  That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are.  The very same requirements of evidence apply either way.  Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment.  Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following:  לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)

In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification.  In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf.  It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol.  At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’  And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down.  Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him.  What does he doe with those tablets?  He breaks them!  When?  Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.

God have given Moses testimony.  God had told Moses exactly what was going on.  If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there?  But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people.  It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.

I think we should insist on the same.  When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear.  A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim.  That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God.  It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday.  And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either.  Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.

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Dylan and the Nobel

This a text version of my remarks about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award from Shabbat morning 10/15

Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from a small town in Minnesota, gifted with an artistic vision and a powerful spirit of rebellion, who made his way from the hinterlands of America to New York City’s Greenwich Village.  The folk scene there was bursting at the seems, a writhing and living organism of creativity and cross pollination.  The Kingston Trio, clean cut and ready for a high school year book photo, was singing Tom Dooley.  Pete Seeger popularized If I had a Hammer.   Joan Baez reached the top of the charts in 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were playing the coffee houses and cafes.  Robert Zimmerman arrived on the scene like stranger coming to town in a western, trailed by a mysterious past, and ultimately leaving behind his given name to become Bob Dylan.

In a few short years he was the biggest musical star in the world, almost a prophet to the young people in the mid 60s who looked to music for guidance and spiritual sustenance.  The hit records came one after another, too many to name, and the songs he wrote became a generational soundtrack.  He had various periods – a folk period followed by an electric period when he began to use amplified instruments.  There was Christian period when for a time he seemed to embrace Christianity, or at least many of its ideals on his record Slow Train Coming.  There was a return to Judaism, Dylan davening with tallit and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  After a motorcycle accident he withdrew from the public eye and regrouped.

But he always came back, he always reappeared.  There were always new songs to sing and play.  He was restless, his mind jumping from idea to idea, his gaze soaking up the American scene, and somehow spitting it back out with song lyrics that sometimes seemed to be divinely inspired, some kind of uber-muse working through Dylan’s inscrutable eyes.  There were songs of social conscience like ‘the Times They Are a Changing,’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind.’  There were protest songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and there were powerful personal portraits of love and longing, of loss and the sheer determination to survive against all odds.

To know that he came from Jewish roots is to recognize the prophetic pull of the tradition in his themes and music.  He sang about justice and truth, the power of the human spirit, and freedom.  All Jewish ideals, all concepts that distinguished ancient Israel from its neighbors.  And Dylan was a seeker, somehow discovering the way to drill down to the very core of an idea or issue or emotion, to uncover the truth, and then to lay it bare before our eyes, without flinching or turning away, and daring us to look at what he had uncovered.  In this search for truth he was reflecting the biblical prophets of old, their fiery spirit and unforgettable words, still read and chanted 2000 years or more after they were spoken.

Bob Dylan has been no saint.  He was always mercurial, often obscure, he was iconoclastic, complicated, and sometimes downright ornery and cantankerous.  But his talent was undeniable, and I would argue it was primarily expressed through his words.  The music was mostly made up of simple chords, songs with traditional musical progressions, classic folk and blues riffs and even melodies that had been played and replayed for decades.  But his language was unique and entirely original, and this was his genius.  The often dense and symbolic lyrics that he composed to express in timeless language the very moments, emotions, and ideas that define our lives.

It is because of that unique gift with words, words that changed music, words that defined a generation, that Bob Dylan was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature this week.  There has been some controversy about the choice – after all, he is a musician and not a writer, some have argued.  Others have said that rock and roll should never been considered on the same cultural level as the great novel or beautiful poetry.  But if the prize at its core is about how the words of an artist can both shape and change the world, then it seems to me hard to argue, for few artists in modern times have shaped and changed the world through words the way Bob Dylan has.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Nobel was awarded to Dylan the very week that we are reading two of the greatest biblical songs ever composed.  In the Torah portion we read Moses’ last message to the Israelites, a song of warning and a powerful charge to the people to stay true to the task at hand as they enter the promised land. And in this morning’s haftara text we read King David’s great hymn of victory and thanksgiving, with its soaring language, its metaphors of darkness and light, and its imagery of the great hand of God drawing David from the rushing mighty waters.  In both cases the biblical poetry is a testament to the lasting power of song, and an example of how language, in the hands of the greatest artists, can create work of enduring, and sometimes even eternal value.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bob Dylan’s work should be considered on the same level as that of the Hebrew Bible or Shakespeare or Milton.  Those authors were some of the greatest geniuses of literature in all of human history, artists who changed not only their own time but all the time to come, and who helped us to see ourselves in a new light, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.  And maybe 100 years from now people will look back at Dylan’s body of work and see him as a simple traveling minstrel with an electric guitar.

But the Nobel Prize is not of the past or the future.  It is of our time.  And as we Jews qvell when a Jewish scientist or novelist or economist wins the Nobel Prize, so too we should be qvelling this week.  Fifty six years ago a young Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota walked onto the world’s biggest stage.  He is still standing there, and he has never looked back.

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish life, Jewish thought, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Uncategorized

Come On Down – Why You Should Come to Shul for the High Holy Days

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/17 –

The weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op ed piece this week written by a rabbi named Jay Michaelson.  The headline of the article is ‘Why You Shouldn’t – should not –  Go to Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah this Year,” and Rabbi Michaelson spends some 1500 words or so explaining why he thinks it is a bad idea for Jews to come to shul to celebrate the beginning of the New Year.  And I understand that some folks just like to be provocative, because that will get them a lot of hits on the internet, and I also understand that sometimes you have a deadline looming, and your are running out of time, and you end up writing the first thing that comes into your mind without fully thinking it through.  So I am not sure whether the Rabbi is in the former category, the latter category, of whether he really believes everything he wrote.  But he does raise three particular points in the article that give him pause, and he says should give us pause, in terms of attending services on the High Holy Days.  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about each of those points.

Interestingly (at least to me!) his first complaint is a theological one.  We should probably establish a fundamental sense of what theology is – what is it?  Essentially, the way you understand and think about God.  And Rabbi Michaelson says that you shouldn’t come to shul on Rosh HaShanah because when you get there and open your Mahzor you are going to find theological concepts that will make you uncomfortable and that you may not believe.  And as proof of this he cites, also interesting to me, probably the most beloved prayer in the entire Mahzor, the Unetane Tokef prayer.  That is the one where we imagine God with a book that holds a record of our deeds from the year gone by, and where we say, ‘who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water.’

Now I know that the theological implications of that prayer are problematic, and I myself don’t literally believe that God sits with a book and is writing names into it ‘who is going to live and who is going to die.’  But I also know that the prayer has a power and meaning that still speaks to people today.  It may be because they’ve been reading it since they were little, and it brings to mind sweet memories of Rosh Hashanas gone by.  It may be because the image itself, whether you believe it or not, can get you to think about your own deeds, which is one of the things people do find meaningful at the start of a new year.   It may also be that there is a core truth to the prayer that Rabbi Michaelson either forgot or never understood, and that is in the course of any given year members of our community will pass away, and we truly don’t know what a year will hold.

But I think in general by couching his first objection to shul on Rosh HaShanah in theological terms Rabbi Michaelson misses the point entirely.  Because theology is an intellectual exercise.  It is a rational, philosophical approach to trying to understand God and our relationship with God.  And I don’t think that is why Jews come to shul on Rosh HaShanah.  I am a rabbi, and I can tell you I don’t wake up Rosh HaShanah morning and say ‘boy I can’t wait to do some theology today!’  For most of us the holidays are not about intellectually unpacking something.  They are instead about emotion, about feeling something, that can’t and probably even shouldn’t be quantified by an intellectual process.  So Rabbi Michelson’s first wrong turn is to assume the biggest problem with shul on Rosh HaShanah is an intellectual one, while the truth is most Jews engage in the experience emotionally.

The Rabbi’s second objection to Rosh HaShanah is that the holiday itself sends a series of mixed messages.  He says it is about ‘celebration and seriousness,’ ‘rejoicing and repentance,’ and he sees those ideas as diametrically opposed, concepts that shouldn’t be combined into a single holiday, or ritual.  But Judaism does that with virtually every holiday.  On Passover the matzah is the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom.  On Sukkoth we rejoice in life and the bountiful harvest, but we also acknowledge life’s temporal quality with the fragile sukkah and the decaying branches of the lulav.  On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah but we also recall that the Torah has been both a guide and at times a heavy burden to bear and a draining responsibility.  And there is a reasons that themes come together on the holidays to conflicts and sometimes contrast – and that is because it reflects the ebb and flow of life.  There are few perfect days, and even fewer perfect lives.  The truth is most of life is a mixed bag, a combination of celebrations and sadnesses, of triumphs and tragedies, of the good and the bad.  And the holidays, with their interplay of themes, acknowledge life’s complexity, and create sacred spaces in time that are recognizable to us and reflect our own lives.

And by the way, sometimes it is only from contrast that the power of an idea becomes apparent.  Would the sense of freedom, and the gratitude that we feel for it on Pesah feel as powerful it we didn’t see it through the lens of slavery?  On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur would the focus on life and the celebration of a new year be as meaningful if we didn’t also find in the Mahzor images of life’s fragility?  It is precisely the contrast that makes it all work, that makes it come alive.  The only way you appreciate a sunrise is to have seen a sun set and to have lived through a night.

The Rabbi’s final objection to shul on the High Holy Days is that the services have become some kind of show, where the audience sits passively and watches as the rabbis and cantors perform some kind of ancient and arcane ritual, intoning words that have no meaning and that no one understands.  And I do believe that he may at least have a point here, because it is a danger of modern Jewish life that sometimes the service can turn into a show.

But I don’t think he has even been to High Holy Days services here at Beth El.  I don’t think he has been here in this sanctuary on Rosh HaShanah eve when a thousand Jews stand together, chasing in full voice the words of the Shema Yisrael.  He certainly has not been here on the second day of Rosh HaShanah when for the 5th aliyah the entire congregation stands together to chant the Torah blessings.  And there is no way he has been here during Ne’ilah, when the ark opens, and hundreds and hundreds of people stream forward to spend a few precious seconds in front of the Torahs on the holiest day of our year, to offer their personal prayers of gratitude and hope.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that shul is for everyone.  I know it is not.  But in a Jewish community of growing complexity, where people identity Jewishly in ways that they never have before, surely there is still plenty of space for the synagogue, for the particular and powerful community that can grow within walls like these, for the unique and sacred experience of continuing a three thousand year old tradition.  The great prophet Isaiah, in the text of this morning’s haftara, reminds us that the Jewish tent may grow large – הרחיבי מקום אהלך – “Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm!”

The Jewish tent grows larger and larger, but the synagogue is still at its center, an institution that conveys identity and transmits tradition like no other in the Jewish world –

may our shuls be full this Rosh HaShanah – and for many, many new years to come –

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