Monday, January 23, 2023

July 2024 Retirement announcement

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven

-Ecclesiastes 3

Today I write to share with you my plans to retire as of June 30, 2024.  At that point, I will mark thirty years at CABI, and thirty-six years—double chai—in the rabbinate. Over that long and fruitful time, through so many seasons together, it has been my enormous privilege to work with you.  I am profoundly grateful for our sacred partnership, grounded in a shared vision of inclusive Jewish community that boldly advances learning, spiritual growth, kindness, and social justice.  From the very beginning, I felt that I truly belonged in the CABI community, and that feeling has only deepened as we have celebrated, grieved and grown together.  I love my work, which is an extraordinary blessing for me, as a rabbi and as a Jew.  

One of my primary professional goals has always been to finish strong and leave a solid foundation for my successor. In that spirit, over the next year and a half, I will be working closely with our board and staff toward our mutual goal of a smooth and successful transition.

As my retirement date gets closer, there will be ample opportunity to reminisce and celebrate. During that time, I will reflect on what comes next for me.  But for now, and in the coming months, I will devote my energy and intention to the ongoing holy labor of strengthening our CABI community, and meeting our mission of empowering people to lead meaningful Jewish lives.  Thank you for sharing that journey with me for the past three decades, and through the forthcoming year and a half.


Rabbi Dan

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Avot 1:15 A Little Hypocrisy Goes a Long Way

Avot 1:15Shammai says: “Make your Torah study a fixed practice, say little and do much, and greet everyone with a friendly face.”

In this passage, Shammai—who is best known as Hillel’s intellectual rival and interlocutor—offers solid, straightforward advice.  Who would argue against the virtue of regularly scheduled study time, the priority of actions over words, or the significance of kindly social interaction?

Yet even a cursory look into Shammai’s biography, as elucidated in numerous Talmudic passages, raises significant questions about this statement.

Of course it is good to receive others with a “friendly face”—but we do not expect to hear this suggestion from Shammai, who was widely known for his strict judgment and stern demeanor.  His most memorably encounter was with a mildly obnoxious potential convert—whom he struck over the head with a yardstick. Considered in this wider context, Shammai’s teaching may strike us as highly hypocritical.

So what might we make of the discrepancy between Shammai’s wisdom and his concrete actions?  For the most part, we rightly regard hypocrisy as an exasperating vice.  Yet as the longtime etiquette and advice columnist Judith Martin—aka Miss Manners—points out, there are times when it can be a kind of virtue: “Why abandon proper standards of society just because we can’t always live up to them?”  Her approach echoes that of the 17th century French writer La Rochefoucauld, who defined hypocrisy as “the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

Shammai’s actions did not always live up to his highest ethical intentions, but if those intentions were aspirational—if they sometimes inspired him to achieve above his default nature—then they were not for naught.

If that’s hypocrisy, we’re all in the club.  May we rise to our best as much as we can, and when we fail to meet that mark, may we try again—and again—always aiming up.

For more on this topic, see Richard Nilsen's excellent article, "In Praise of Hypocrisy" here:

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Avot 1:14 Self, Others, and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Avot 1:14Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?

This is undoubtedly the best-known passage in Avot, and one of the most cited quotes from the entire Jewish tradition.  Hillel’s ancient wisdom has been employed as the title of numerous books and movies, incorporated into several song lyrics, and even boldly emblazoned on the walls of a leading national chain of fitness centers.  And as catchy as it is in English, it’s even more memorable in Hebrew, where it rhymes.

The opening line reminds us of the importance of self-care and determination.  As individuals, and as part of the Jewish people, we can and should advocate for our own legitimate interests.  Self-abnegation and mortification serve no one, only rendering us impotent in a world that cries out for all hands on deck.

A key to understanding the second line is to note the shift in pronouns.  We begin with “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  but continue “If I am only for myself, what am I?”  If our locus of concern ends with ourselves, Avot implies, we become less than fully human.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead offered a powerful illustration of this truth.  She asked her students, “What is the oldest evidence of human civilization?”  They responded with the expected answers: a clay pot, iron tools, the domestication of plants and animals.  

“No,” Mead replied, “those are all early indicators but here is what I believe to be the first and most important sign of civilization”—as she held up a human femur and pointed to a thickened area where the bone had been fractured and then solidly healed.  She continued: “In nature, crippling wounds are fatal, because those who suffer them are left for dead.  But this healed bone shows that a group must have cared for the injured person—hunted on their behalf, brought them food, provided shelter and active concern for their welfare—making significant personal sacrifices to save the lives of a friend or family member.  That is the beginning of true human society.”

If we are only for ourselves, what are we?

The final line--If not now, when?--speaks to what Dr. King eloquently called “the fierce urgency of now.”  In a world rife with cruelty, division and deep injustice, we are all called to do our part.  Let’s find strength and solace in the knowledge that we are in it together.

On that note, I leave you with a link to a new song by the wonderful singer-songwriter Iris DeMent called “Workin’ On a World.”  It’s powerful medicine for apathy, offering, in the words of music critic Ann Powers, “a hallelujah for the good done by those who lay the path toward good even if they may not walk its full length.”

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Avot 1:13 Move or Die

Avot 1:13Hillel would say. . . “One who does not increase, decreases.” 

There are a few species of sharks—great whites, whale sharks, makos—that cannot breathe while staying still.  These fish rely on a process known as obligate ram ventilation, which requires them to swim with their mouths open.  The faster they go, the more water is pushed through their gills.  If they stop swimming, they receive no oxygen.  If they don’t move, they die.

Hillel argues that when it comes to learning, we are, metaphorically-speaking, just like those sharks.  There is no neutral zone, no steady state—if we do not constantly increase our knowledge, we lose it. 

Life is dynamic.  To fail to move forward is, indeed, to fall behind.  To be fully human—which is to say, to be a mensch—is to continually learn and grow from our mistakes.

As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

The story is told of a rabbi who posed a question to her student: “Two people are perched on ladders reaching from earth to heaven.  One is on the tenth rung, the other on just the second.  Which one is in a better place?”

“That’s easy,” replied the student, “the one on the tenth rung.”

“Not necessarily,” said the rabbi.  “It depends on whether, and which way, they’re moving.”

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Avot 1:12 Living in Peace with One Another and All of the Creation

Avot 1:12Hillel says: Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the Creation and bringing them closer to the Torah. 

Hillel is one of the best-known rabbinic sages, and this is one of his most cited teachings.  Many commentators have noted that the doubling—love and pursue—emphasizes the imperative of peacemaking.  It is not enough to maintain harmony in our own circles; we are, instead, obligated to actively seek peace between all of our fellow human beings.  

Far less attention has been paid to the second half of this passage, which has often been mistranslated as “loving people.”  But the Hebrew—briyot—refers to the entirety of Creation: plants, animals, insects, rocks, rivers—everything.  True peace—or, in the deeper meaning of the word shalom, wholeness—means living in concord with the entirety of the natural world.  

Philosopher David Abram explicates this brilliantly in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.  To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.  We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.

We become who we are in relationship with both our fellow human beings and the natural world.  To love and pursue peace is to engage, acknowledge, and celebrate those relationships. This is Hillel’s—and Aaron’s—way. 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Avot 1:11--Words that Hurt

Avot 1:11: Avtalyon says: Sages, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of toxic water.  The students who follow you there may drink and die, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

For generations, American children have learned the mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The point is clear—while physical violence may injure us, verbal attacks need not do us any harm.

This idiom strikes me as nonsense, and decidedly not Jewish.  In our tradition, the power of words, to harm or to heal, is unparalleled.  The Talmud teaches: “Anyone who insults or humiliates another in public—it is as though they were spilling blood.”  Hate speech is murderous.  As one of our most well-known folk parables recognizes, cruel and callous words can never be fully retracted; once spoken, they scatter through the world like wind-driven feathers.  Today, with social media’s capacity to amplify the spread of words by unfathomable magnitudes, we are collectively drowning in the toxic tide of insult and insinuation.

Avtalyon directs his warning toward his peers, the rabbinic sages and scholars of his generation.  They bear the responsibility of leading by example, for as Avtalyon notes, students are strongly drawn to follow their teachers.  In our own age, when we are all effectively armed with a booming high-tech megaphone, we share the leader’s privilege and burden of modeling kind and compassionate speech.  The next generation is watching, listening, and learning from us.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Avot 1:10--Love Work, Shun Power

Avot 1:10Sh’mayah says: Love work, despise positions of authority, and do not become overly comfortable with the authorities.

What is the relationship between Sh’mayah’s first statement—love work—and his subsequent warnings against cozying up to wealth and power?

Perhaps he was concerned about sycophancy as a cheap and misguided shortcut to what is conventionally seen as success.  It is all too easy to turn to money and influence as a substitute for meaningful work.  To follow that path is to lose one’s moral compass—as so many seeking to gain or maintain political leadership have sadly done in recent years.

Sh’mayah’s juxtaposition serves to clarify the true purpose of work—m’lachah—which is to repair a reasonable portion of the world’s brokenness. We obviously need to earn sufficiently to put bread on our tables, but integrity demands that in one way or another, our endeavors bring more healing than hurt.  If we find ourselves focused on the accumulation of capital and influence for selfish purposes, it is time to reconsider our path.  With some significant exceptions, the wealthy and powerful are heavily vested in maintaining the status quo, because that’s what helped enable their prosperity and prestige.  If we are committed to doing our part in changing the world for the better, it is generally advisable to not get too comfortable with the individuals and institutions that have the most to gain by keeping things as they currently are.  Holy labor is that which recognizes the world as it is, but never stops striving toward the vision of what it should be.