Category Archives: Shakespeare

The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.



Filed under American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, dysfunctional family, holidays, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Shakespeare, Uncategorized

Summer Reading List 2017

Enjoy the books!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Roz Chast – Chast, a cartoonist at the New Yorker for years, published this graphic novel in 2014.  It is a poignant and brutally honest confrontation with what it means to age, and what it means to care for aging parents.  And it is definitely presented through a Jewish lens.  228 pages, and the first time a graphic novel has made the list.

The Handmaid’s Tale  Margaret Atwood – This chilling novel from 1986 describes a world where women have been subjected to a secondary role in society, where fundamentalist religion rules, and where the elected United States government has been forcibly removed via a military coup.  To read it today is to understand how great fiction both unpacks the past and warns about the future. 300 pages (give or take!)

American War Omar El Akkad – The second dystopian novel on this year’s list.  El Akkad’s debut work of fiction explores a near future where a second American civil war between blue and red states takes place.  If our partisan political divisions grow even greater, if terrorism becomes a regular occurrence on American soil, if climate change continues to escalate, what will our world look like?  El Akkad has created a stunning vision of one possible answer to that question.  333 pages

Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance – Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Vance writes movingly about the world he grew up in, the culture that defined it, and the experience of watching that world slowly but surely fade away.  This book explores the dynamics of the poor, white, working class world in rural America at a time when its culture is in crisis.  260 pages

All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot – This beloved book from 1972 takes you back to a simpler time.  The author chronicles his ‘adventures’ as a veterinarian in the remote Yorkshire Dales, tending to the various animals (and sometimes humans) who need his help.  It is a powerful page by page reminder of the great beauty that exists in God’s world that we all too often fail to see. 425 pages

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders – In this debut novel a grief stricken Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently deceased 11 year old son Willie.  While in the cemetery he encounters the ghosts of others who are buried there, and listens to their life stories told from beyond the grave.  The novel is a meditation on national loss and an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak that are inevitable components of living a human life.  343 pages

Measure for Measure William Shakespeare – This late comedy explores themes of justice, mortality, and mercy, as well as the fine line that sometimes exists between corruption and purity.  The line “some rise by sin, some by virtue fall” (Act ii scene 1) reads as fresh and contemporary commentary given today’s political climate.


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(What) To Say or Not to Say,That is the Question

You’ll recognize the paraphrase of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  (Act III, scene 1)  Interesting fact about that line, in fact that entire speech, now so sealed into our minds, as ‘canonized’ as anything in Shakespeare:   There was actually a series of earlier versions.  As an example, this version was printed in the First Quarto (1603):

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…

So Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer of them all, despite his preternatural gifts, worked in drafts!  And even after the play had been performed the Bard’s work continued, massaging the lines, rethinking concepts, rewriting.  Evidently when he arrived at the following formula he realized perfection, and he stopped:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Pause indeed.  For in the rabbinic world, this is the time of writing and rewriting, of switching phrases, of working ideas, struggling with transitions, worrying over the ebb and flow of a text that ironically and ultimately is meant to be spoken.  Perfection in a sermon will never be achieved, for it simply does not exist.  But we work hard, and we spend more time with these sermons that we do with anything else we’ll preach the rest of the year.

This year there is an extra challenge.  What to say, or not to say, about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Presidential election?  There is a clear legal definition you work with – a preacher may not endorse a candidate from the pulpit.  Such an endorsement would forfeit the preacher’s house of worship’s non-profit status.  But as we all know you can get awfully close to that line without crossing it.  I’ve heard rabbis (and Christian preachers as well) say everything BUT ‘and you should vote for..’   They didn’t even need to say it, because their message was already clear.

Of course in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere some folks feel that even touching on politics during a sermon is akin to landing on the third rail.  I had a congregant once tell me I shouldn’t even use the words Democrat or Republican from the pulpit.  At the same time it feels almost cowardly, or in some way irresponsible, not to address the one issue that is on everyone’s mind.

So what to say?  Or not to say?  This is the challenge rabbis around the country are struggling with this year.  In a way it is like the old joke about rabbis:  the ideal rabbi has 25 years experience in the field, but is only 35 years old.  She spends no money and requires little pay, but must dress well and drive a respectable car.  He should be at meetings morning, noon, and night, but should also find time to spend with his family.  You get the idea.  So it is with the High Holiday sermon – it should be topical, but not touch on politics.   And oh yes, it should make them laugh and cry, be filled with original insight and ancient wisdom, not make anyone angry, and perhaps most importantly of all, make them want to come back for more.  After all, there is always Yom Kippur.

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Filed under American Jewry, clergy, High Holy Days, Jewish life, politics, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, Shakespeare, synagogue, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

When Mercy Seasons Justice

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. (Merchant of Venice act 4, scene 1)

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/27/16 –

I would like you to think with me for a few minutes this morning about two starkly contrasting stories that came out of the health care industry this week.  On the one hand if you follow the news you heard a lot about the epipen.  This is the mechanism that will quickly inject medication into someone’s thigh if they are having a serious allergic reaction.  The best example probably is allergy to bees – if you are highly allergic to bees and you are stung it can be very dangerous, even life threatening.  So you carry an epipen with you.  If you are stung, you inject yourself with the device and the allergic reaction is stopped.  Just out of curiosity – how many people in the room have an epipen?

This week, Mylan, the pharmaceutical company that makes the epipen, announced a fairly significant price hike in the device, which will now cost you around $600 for two pens.  The public outrage was immediate and vociferous.  Internet campaigns were launched, social media was brought to bear, and just Thursday the company announced that they would give some consumers access to coupons which would make the devices more affordable.  But they didn’t change the price – that stayed at the $600 level.  And the fear is that some families will not be able to afford the devices which I believe are supposed to be replaced every year – and that potentially someone will need it and not have.  That is story number one.

The second story is the opposite side of that coin.  In Orlando the major health care network and the hospital where many of the shooting victims from the Pulse nightclub were treated announced they would not charge the victims for any of the services they provided.  Health insurance they’ll take – whatever it pays will go to the hospital.  But the patients will not be asked to cover any additional costs.

Now on the surface, just in and of itself, it is an odd thing to see those two stories sitting side by side in your morning newspaper.  And I don’t mean to suggest that the pharmaceutical company should give up all of its profits and do its work purely for charitable purposes.  To me it is a question of a number of things.  Balance is one of them – what is the proper balance?  If you are in an industry where you are creating life saving medications, how much should you be making?  Should you be making profit to the point where some people will not be able to afford you medication?  How much is enough?  How much is maybe too much?

The idea of ‘doing well and doing good’ has been floating around in the business world now for a number of years.  I remember that as far back as 2009 Bill Gates, the multibillionaire founder of Microsoft, began to publicly talk about the idea of large corporations figuring out how to make money and maximize prophets, while at the same time maintaining a conscience and a sense of social justice.  His argument was that doing good – in other words, giving something back, and making the world a better place – in the end will enable the business to do well, also – to make money and be profitable.

That idea always struck me as a very Jewish idea.  Judaism never – at least in any serious way – was attracted to asceticism, to giving up all of your worldly possessions.  In fact Judaism says there is nothing wrong with doing well – it is something you should strive for, that material goods and wealth are not inherently bad or immoral – they can in fact enhance the quality of your life.  At the same time Judaism does remind us of the importance of giving back, mostly through its idea about tzedakah, the giving of charity, considered in the tradition to be a commandment that every person must fulfill.  So in Judaism it is about balance – you should certainly strive to do well, to succeed and be financially comfortable.  But as you do well, you should also do good – have a social conscience, make the world a better place, and give something back along the way.

In this morning’s Torah portion there is one of those verses that just captures my attention in a particular way.  I do in my life – and I know may of you do as well – try to figure out what God wants of me.  What are the actions I can take in the course of a day, or in the course of a year, or in the course of a life, that would cause God to look down and say ‘that was pretty well done.’  B+  And in this morning’s portion there is one of those verses that raises that question, and answers it.  מה ה׳ א׳ שואל מעמך – what is it that the Lord your God requires of you?  Asks of you?  And the answer the Torah gives is this:  to love God, to serve God with all of your heart and soul, and to keep God’s commandments.

Now, as they say in the vernacular today, TBH – what does that mean?  To be honest, although I like the question quite a bit, I am not a big fan of the answer.  Not that I reject it – I understand the idea that you need to have a spiritual life, that tradition and faith and God should play a role in determining who you are.  What I don’t like about the answer is that it doesn’t give me any practical information that I can take with me when I go out into the world.  It just all sounds a bit vague to me – ‘serve God with my heart and soul, keep God’s commandments’ – I want some specifics.

Luckily for me there is another verse – a very famous verse – which echoes the verse from this morning’s Torah portion that gives me the specifics I am looking for.  It comes from the prophet Micah, we read it as part of the haftara just a few weeks ago, it is the concluding verse of that haftara.  And in that verse Micah the prophet asks the same question the Torah is asking this morning – מה ה׳ דורש ממך – what is it that Lord requires of you?  And then the famous answer – Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

As you may imagine there is a wealth of commentary on that one verse – pages and pages and pages.  I’ve always understood the three parts working together, in two ways.  First, if you apply the ideas of justice and goodness to everything that you do, at the end of the day you will be able to walk humbly with God.  This is classic Jewish thought!  Do what you are supposed to do, do things the right way, and the rest will follow.

But also you need to have both justice and goodness to bring God’s presence into the world.  Justice and goodness are very different animals.  Justice is cold, calculating – think of the image of the scales of justice, always held by a woman, and the woman is always blindfolded – justice is impartial, at least in theory.  So it shouldn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, black or white, it simply is what it is.

But  that kind of blind justice needs to be tempered by, combined with, mixed up in goodness.  It is when justice and goodness are working together that a sense of the sacred can be felt in our world.  It is not just about doing it by the books.  It is also about doing it the right way, with goodness and kindness and mercy.  It is not just about doing well – it is also very much about doing good.  May we all remember that – as individuals, as a synagogue community, and even in the corporate world, a place where maybe that idea is needed most.

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Summer Reading List 2016

My annual list – these books will keep you company on rainy days and sunny beaches (provided the sun ever comes out!).  As always, a ‘caveat emptor’ – some of these books might already be in the bag (I’ve read them), some might not get read at all, while I might read a book or two not on the list (if so, I’ll post additions on Twitter).  Enjoy the books!

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehesi Coates  This powerful book, part memoir and part political treatise, is a stunning depiction of the emotional impact of growing up black in America.  In a time when racial and ethnic differences are front and center in the national conversation this is a must read.  152 pages

SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard  The classicist from Cambridge University has written a compelling account of ancient Rome’s rise and fall.  Like the best written history, this book teaches us about the past while giving us a chance to reflect on the present.  575 pages

Doomed to Succeed – Dennis Ross  The historian, diplomat, and Middle East expert has written an insightful review of the history of American-Israeli relations, focusing on the presidents and their administrations and how they have either supported (mostly) or not supported (rarely) the Middle East’s only democracy.  474 pages

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo  The author paints a vivid picture of small town life in upstate New York, incorporating a bit of ‘who done it’ along the way.  They say you can’t go home again, but every once in a while you can visit.  500 pages

Purity – Jonathan Franzen  Arguably America’s greatest contemporary novelist, Franzen turns the structure of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ into a twisted tale that reminds us of how deeply inter-connected we all are, while at the same time confronting us with the knowledge of how challenging it can be to maintain our closest relationships and to fully open up to another person. 500 pages

This summer’s Shakespeare play is Macbeth.  Can there be any better play of the Bard’s to read during this deeply unsettling election season?  What does power mean and how much is it worth?  And remember, be careful what you wish for!  Who can forget the striking couplet from the end of the Witches speech in Act IV, scene 1 – “Double, double, toil and trouble – fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

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Star Crossed Lovers

this a text version of my sermon from Shabbat morning services on 2/13/16

It is a story that has been around probably almost as long as people have been telling stories. At its heart, it is a boy meets girl story, but it is boy meets girl complicated by the fact that the boy and girl come from different worlds. They might come from warring houses, great families that disdain one another and wish each other harm – think Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They might come from different ethnic backgrounds or gangs, or classes, like Tony and Maria of West Side Story, or Catherine and the dark skinned Heathcliff from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or Lancelot and Guinevere from the King Arthur legends. These are the couples we have come to call ‘star crossed lovers’, from the phrase in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet – “a pair of star crossed lovers.”

The classic pattern of the story seems to suggest that love does triumph, but only for a time. Remember that Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights are not together until the end of the novel when Heathcliff dies and is buried next to the woman he has loved throughout his life. And in exploring the tensions that ultimately keep these couples from ‘living happily ever after,’ these stories challenge the conceptions we have not only about romantic relationships, but also about the way different groups in our society can and do relate to one another. When are people permitted to marry, when are they not? What boundaries are too great to cross in terms of a relationship? Is a religious boundary too great? An ethnic boundary? A gender boundary? A socio-economic boundary? Underneath the love story there is an exploration of class differences and ethnic tensions, of the stereotyping that commonly goes on when one group thinks about another group, of the fear and distrust that often exist between people of different backgrounds and different communities.

I would argue that it is necessary to confront these questions and to wrestle with them, to put them out on the table and to talk about them. It is part of the process of understanding who we are, both internally, our own group, what defines us particularly – but also on a larger scale – in an open society, where are the boundaries, what are people comfortable with, and what makes people uncomfortable, and why? Is that right or wrong, is it something that needs to be talked about, something that the society needs to come to terms with? And what art does – whether Shakespeare’s play, or Bronte’s novel- is enable us to wrestle with these issues in a safe way – to process them, think about them, and understand them more deeply. Think of it like this – if you can’t wrestle with a difficult issue in a novel, how are you ever going to be able to wrestle with it in real life?

And so it was disturbing to me to hear that just a few weeks ago Israel’s Ministry of Education asked schools across the country to remove a novel called Borderlife from high school reading lists. The novel, written by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, is essentially a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It is the story of a young Israeli woman and a young Palestinian man who meet in New York City, fall in love, and then struggle to maintain their relationship once they return to the Middle East. It has all of the classic elements of the star crossed lover narrative – the boy and girl come from different worlds, their communities don’t understand each other, their families will not accept the relationship between them, and what is more, their culture, their society, will not accept that relationship either. You would think that the Ministry of Education should protect values like academic inquiry, and freedom of speech. But instead they have decided to close a conversation for their students before it even got started.

One of the arguments we make all the time in the Jewish community about the Palestinians is that the curriculum they teach in their schools contains an inherent anti-Israel bias. And I wonder in my own mind if in Israel you start telling your teachers and students that some books are permitted while others are not, and if the books that are not permitted are those that present Palestinians in a positive light – are we not falling into the same trap that has swallowed up the Palestinians? Isaac Herzog, who is the leader of the opposition in the Keneset, worth this on his FB page: “Tell me, are the People of the Book afraid of books?”

Are we afraid of books? Are we afraid of thinking that a Palestinian and an Israeli might fall in love? Are we afraid of a story that portrays a Palestinian as a full human being, with thoughts and feelings, with bad qualities and good qualities? If we are afraid of those things I would argue we’ve come to a place that first of all isn’t a Jewish place, and second of all isn’t a human place. And I don’t mean to suggest that Israelis and Palestinians should suddenly start marrying one another. But I do mean to suggest that denying the common humanity on both sides of a painful and difficult situation doesn’t do anyone any good.

If you were in services last night you know that the Torah portion we read this week, Trumah, describes the ancient tabernacle that the Israelites wandered with in the wilderness. Virtually all of the items from that tabernacle are symbolized in our modern sanctuaries. The table is the altar that the sacrifices were offered on. The ark is a symbol of the ancient ark that carried the tablets with the 10 commandments, the eternal light reflects the light they kept lit in ancient times, and the list goes on and on. One thing we looked at last night was the ark, and you’ll remember that the ark in the Gorn is supposed to look very much like the ancient ark. Anyone remember how? Poles to carry, and also the sweeping top, one arc (arc with a ‘c’) going in one direction, one arc going in the other direction, is supposed to symbolize what is described in the Torah on the top of the ancient ark, which was a sculpted image of two angel like figures with their wings outstretched over their heads.

And the Torah is very detailed in its description of these angels, to include the following: ופניהם איש אל אחיו – literally what that means is that the face of one must be against the other. I like the translation in our Humash, which says the figures must confront each other. Confront. There is a tension contained in that word, almost as if one figure is facing off against the other, standing its ground.

And I would say it is the same thing with the problems and difficulties and challenges in our lives and in our world. They have to be confronted. If you hide your head in the sand, and pretend they don’t exist, and wait for a while, they will still be there when you look out again. Removing a book from a reading list is not going to make a problem go away. If anything, it will sell more books. But by taking it away, you also take away the opportunity to confront the problem, to wrestle with it and think about it and struggle with it. And hopefully come to a deeper sense of wisdom about it.

It seems to me that is also what the Ministry of Education in Israel needs – a little bit of wisdom, and also faith – faith in its students and teachers. Is the subject difficult, is the book hard, will it take its readers out of a comfort zone? Absolutely. But perhaps what that means is that it is all the more worthwhile to read it and teach it, to talk about it, and wrestle with the challenges it presents to all of us.

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Rage Against the Machine

Imagine that. They had it right all along, the science fiction prognosticators, the paranoid prophets who saw in early computers a danger to humanity. The Terminator, Clark’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – all envisioning a world where the created over takes the creator, where the machines rise up and rebel, changing the course of history forever. Heck, even Mary Shelley saw it in the fevered opium dreams that produced her great novel Frankenstein. The funny thing is we don’t see it, but we very well may be living it.

The midrashic literature, speculating about the way the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians, paints a picture of gradual and subtle deception. Over a long period of time, a decree here and an edict there, a new responsibility added one month, a new freedom taken away the next. And then, seemingly suddenly, they were trapped. What is happening to us is not so dire, nor restricting, and it is true, more than anything else we are doing it to ourselves. OK, the huge corporations, the Microsofts and Googles, the Apples and Amazons, they are complicit, perhaps even driving us. But still. And we are going along for the ride earnestly, not hesitating, even saying ‘faster, faster.’ Where are we headed?

To an age of ‘post humanism,’ according to Leon Wieseltier. In a scathing essay published recently in the NY Times he argues that by so fully entering the machine age, by becoming so dependent on data and so connected to screens, we are leaving our humanity behind. Here a quote that brings his point home: “Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Text without context is dangerous. Information without understanding, without wisdom, is meaningless, and perhaps even worse a path to apathy, to disconnection and dismay, to believing that nothing truly matters. What we must remember is that data can only describe our reality, it cannot make meaning out of it. The human element – intuition, insight, wisdom, inspiration – these are the impossible to quantify ingredients that are necessary for human intellectual life. Without them we do become like robots, responding to 0s and 1s, to code and data, knowing that a rose is beautiful, but not feeling that it is.

One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare comes from Lear. Gloucester has been blinded, and he wanders on the heath with Edgar. By seeming chance they run into Lear, who asks Gloucester how he manages to navigate the world without his eyes. “I see it feelingly” is Gloucester’s timeless reply. (Lear act 4, scene 6) And there you have it. To see feelingly means to be sensitive to what is invisible. It is precisely what machines cannot do, and data cannot show us. And it is also, precisely so, the source of our humanity.

You can read the Wieseltier article at this link:

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