Sunday, January 31, 2016

Law and Love (Portion Mishpatim)

These are the rules that you shall set before them.  (Exodus 21:1)

I believe that Jewish tradition contains strands of nearly every significant political philosophy.  Therefore, while my personal politics clearly incline (mostly) toward liberalism, I have no doubt that one can be an equally good, authentic Jew while embracing conservatism, radicalism, moderation, socialism, and even authoritarianism and theocracy. 

There is, however, one perspective that I see as completely anathema to Judaism: anarchy.  This is where the extremes of left and right meet, asserting that the best government is, essentially, no government.  In Jewish tradition, human civilization is founded—and still depends—upon the rule of law.  In its absence, life is, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Or, to quote Rabbi Chanina in the Talmud: “Pray for the welfare of the government—for without respect for governmental authority, people would swallow one another alive.”  It is worth noting that Chanina’s government was hardly benign; he lived under brutally oppressive Roman rule—yet he still saw this as better than anarchy.

For Jews, law makes life possible, and, at its best, it raises us up as individuals and communities.  At every level—from families to neighborhoods to synagogues to nations—just laws create and maintain just societies.  In our culture, we insist that belief follows behavior.  To change your beliefs and suppositions, you start by changing what you do in the world.  And the best way to change behavior is to change the law.  To offer a timely example: If we want to create justice for our state’s LGBT community, you don’t say: “We’ll add the words after we teach everyone to love one another.”  Instead, we slowly, imperfectly—but inexorably—teach love by making it the law, even for those who don’t (yet) love.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is at heart a collection of laws dealing with a vast array of topics, civil and criminal and ritual, holy and mundane.  At first, it seems a far cry from the spiritual heights of last week’s parshah, where God speaks to the Israelites from Mount Sinai.  But since, for us, law is love and life, these legal matters are of utmost spiritual significance. 

And so, as you make your way through the week, consider: how can rules and guidelines make your seemingly-ordinary interactions more sacred, successful, and meaningful?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I Want to Go Out and I Want to Stay Home (Portion Yitro)

"You speak to us,” [the Israelites] said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)

On her fantastic debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett sings my favorite line from 2015: I want to go out but I want to stay home.  As she repeats this chorus, over pounding drums and driving guitar riff, throughout her song, “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Part,” we, the listeners, feel the weight of her ambivalence as our own.  We, too, very often want conflicting things.

This is certainly true for the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  Assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, they implore Moses for an audience with God—yet when their request is granted and God begins to speak to them, they immediately turn and run away.  They seek the Divine Presence—but as soon as it is manifest, they flee from it, begging Moses to stand in their stead.


Because like Courtney Barnett—and us—the Israelites are wracked by ambivalence.  They simultaneously desire contraries: presence and absence, independence and interdependence, freedom and obligation, solitude and community, the holy and the mundane.  Thus they remind us that life is complicated, that our yearnings are ever-shifting, our courage ephemeral, and our intentions and motivations deeply mixed. 

The Israelites’ complex response to divine revelation therefore challenges us to recognize that we, too, are often terrified when we get what we want and work towards, because we recognize that such experiences irrevocably change us, and significant change is almost always deeply challenging—even when we know it is ultimately for the best.

This week, consider: When do you resist what you also desire—and why?  How do you respond when God calls—when you want to go out and you want to stay home?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Shabbat Shirah: Sing a New Song (In Memory of David Bowie)

In my youth, I was not a David Bowie fan. I preferred grunge to glam.  My tastes during the ‘70s inclined toward California singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt), grizzled bluesmen (Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters), straight-up rockers (Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Who), and of course, always, Bob Dylan.   I looked askance at prog rock and avant garde and the disco scene, all of which influenced—and were influenced by—David Bowie.

Yet. . . my high school rock band, Thunderbolt, loved playing Bowie’s hard-rocking classic, “Rebel Rebel,” with its three easy chords, and as a Dylan fanatic, I recognized that like my idol, Bowie was a master of shifting personas. Although none of his famous characters—from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke—  held much appeal for me, I respected Bowie’s ability to create and inhabit them gracefully.  In doing so, he reminded me of Dylan’s wisdom: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”  Or, as Bowie himself put it, imploringly: Turn and face the strange changes.  Much later I learned the Jewish version of this manifesto, in which, upon waking, one recites a blessing thanking the Creator for restoring our souls daily, and thus granting us the opportunity to remake ourselves anew each day. 

Current brain research—and my own anecdotal experience—indicates that most of our musical preferences are determined in our adolescence (  It is, therefore, much to my surprise that as I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself drawn to some of the glam and art rock bands that I scorned in my youth: the Talking Heads, Queen, Roxie Music.  
And. . . David Bowie, whose death last week grieved me more deeply than I would have expected.  I think I’ve learned to hear themes in their music that I missed the first time around: questioning and experimentation and, above all, courage.  Looking back, I deeply admire their daring.  Indeed, reflecting on my own past, I now suspect that much of the antipathy I bore toward this music as a teen was born out of my own not-so-subtle anti-gay prejudice.  As a straight suburban high school kid in the ‘70s, I inherited—and perpetuated—the prevailing bigotries of the time.  Only with the benefit of hindsight have I come to see these artists as the revolutionaries that they were.  David Bowie’s sexual orientation was complicated, and he spent most of his life in heterosexual marriages—but he was, nonetheless, the first major rock artist to publicly describe himself as gay.  That act—which I, sadly, undoubtedly mocked in my adolescence—now strikes me as truly heroic.

This week, in the aftermath of his death, I have read countless testimonies from LGBT adults for whom David Bowie was, literally, a life saver—a beacon of hope and pride in an otherwise brutally anti-gay time.  But his influence as a kind of exemplar for all sorts of "misfits" extended far beyond the LGBT community.  A few days ago, I came across a tribute to Bowie on a frum website, in which a born-secular, turned-Hasidic woman wrote about how Bowie’s “weirdness” inspired her to come out—as an ultra-Orthodox Jew!  Our sacred tradition teaches us to love the Other as ourselves, since we have, ourselves, been Other in the land of Egypt—and beyond.   David Bowie taught that, too, with his array of personas.  With his life. 

This week is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, in which our Torah portion, Beshallach, includes the Song at the Red Sea.  It is, therefore, a fitting season to remind ourselves of the psalmist’s words offered for daily recitation in our morning liturgy: Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash—Sing a new song unto the Holy One!  God asks us to constantly renew ourselves and our communities.  David Bowie did just that.  May his memory be for a blessing.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Short Breath and Hard Labor (Portion Va'era)

Moses spoke (of liberation) to the children of Israel, but they did not hear/hearken to Moses because of their shortness of breath and because of their hard labor.
                                                                        -Exodus 6:9

What does it mean that the Israelites failed to respond to Moses’ message of deliverance on account of “shortness of breath and hard labor”?

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, suggests that not being able to “hear” means despairing of ever being redeemed.  The people have been so oppressed for so long, they have abandoned all hope for the future.  Moses tries to rouse and inspire them by speaking of freedom, but his words cannot break through their desolation. 

As Rabbi Yael Shy notes, this is an apt description of depression and despair.  She writes: “Despair is different from sadness, fear, or even suffering.  One can experience any of those difficult emotions or states of being and still have space in the mind and heart for the possibility of the unknown future—of things changing.  In despair, one believes that there is only one answer you need, and it is no.  Nothing will change.  There is no hope and no possibility.

Most of us have been in this dark place at some point in our lives.  We get so exhausted, so worn down, so battered by painful circumstances that we lose the point of even trying to strive for something better.   As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, burnout is related less to how much work have to do, and more with the sense that our work can make a real difference in the world.  When we believe our actions matter, we can bear enormous burdens.  But when our actions feel meaningless, even small tasks become unbearable.

How, then, can we emerge out of this place of suffocating narrowness?  Nachmanides argues that the answer lies in learning, very gradually, to practice patience and trust.  We might begin by finding one small thing for which we are grateful, even in the most difficult of circumstances, or by imagining a single, ordinary action that we have taken that made the world a little better, despite the disproportionate weight of suffering and injustice.

As we begin a new calendar year, there is much around us that can—and should—break our hearts: violence, hatred, inequality, catastrophic environmental damage.  Our challenge is to refuse to let our anger and grief drive us to the kind of shortness of breath—and spirit—that paralyzed our Israelite ancestors and rendered them incapable of hearkening to God’s (and Moses’) call for liberation.  Let us trust that the world can be made better—and strive to do just that, despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.    As Talmud reminds us: we are not obligated to complete the work—but neither are we free to desist from it.

Religion and Politics (Idaho Statesman article January 3, 2015)

Once when Napoleon conquered a city, he decided to reward his three bravest soldiers. He called them into his tent and asked each of them what they desired.
The first asked for a mountain of gold. The second requested that the Emperor free his city. The third asked for a piece of salted herring.
After Napoleon left, the first two soldiers turned and stared at the third in shock.
“At least,” he said, “I may get a herring.”
Sometimes, the story goes, it best to approach life with limited expectations. Part of me wants to keep that maxim in mind as we approach the opening of the 2016 session of the Idaho Legislature — for rumors of impending legislation do not bode well for those concerned with religious freedom and social justice.
In the past, our Legislature has tended to make a mockery — or worse — of religion, wielding it as a club against our state’s most vulnerable citizens. Despite the Hebrew Bible’s repeated injunctions to care for the hungry and seek justice for the oppressed, here in Idaho, lawmakers more frequently use religion as a shield for bigotry, greed, homophobia and misogyny.
Why, then, should we expect anything new this year? I anticipate that once again, many in the House and Senate will equivocate on adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act — and some of them will defend their anti-gay fear and prejudice under the guise of “religious freedom.”
Any legislation that compromises full equality on such false pretense should be roundly rejected.
Sadly, those who purport to speak for religion are also likely to be leading attacks on Planned Parenthood, clamoring against welcoming refugees, and doing nothing about the epidemic of gun violence that is sickening the soul of our nation. Every legitimate faith teaches us to love our neighbors — yet the keepers of the faith so frequently seek to control women’s bodies and fail to recognize the Divine Image in the presence of those who do not look or talk like themselves. And despite the horrific spree of shooting after shooting, their response to guns is: pray for the victims and pass the ammunition.
A Jewish teaching implores us: Pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you. To which a friend and member of my community reminded me: “People need to be clear about what prayer does and doesn’t do. Prayer changes us, establishes a relationship, grounds us, so that we can more thoughtfully and more courageously act. It doesn’t absolve us somehow from acting. Imagine if you were in a relationship with someone who only said nice things, but acted as if they didn’t really care about what you wanted? Lip service is not love, and is not my religion. If you believe in love, and hunger for peace, then act.”
Like Napoleon’s soldier, I might grieve less if I lowered my expectations and made my peace with religion bolstering oppression and inaction. But in the end, I refuse to let go of my hope for a better, more inclusive and peaceful future — even (or especially) during the Idaho legislative season. The God of the Torah and of living Jewish tradition will not allow me to settle for the injustice of the status quo. Low expectations may yield little rewards, but working towards miracles changes the world.

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