Sunday, December 13, 2009

Home and Chanukah

I'm home after a restful and renewing week at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert.

It was a great opportunity to do some meditation, some writing, walking, teaching and learning. Above all, I focused on strengthening my prayer practice. It's always tempting--and too easy--to run through the liturgy without paying much attention on the kavvannah, the real spirit or intention of the prayers. Using Rabbi Jeff Roth's book, Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life, I created a kind of path through the morning shacharit service that was fruitful for me over the course of the retreat. My challenge now, of course, is to stick with this now that I am home.

Meanwhile, a happy Chanukah to all. May this season bring light in a time of darkness, and renewal and hope and peace.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Long Short Way

Short cuts are not always the best way to reach one’s destination. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua teaches: Once a child got the better of me. I was traveling, and I ran into a boy at a crossroads. I asked him, “Which way to the city?” and he answered: “This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.”

I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: “My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?”

He replied: “Did I not tell you that it is also long?"

Like Rabbi Yehoshua, we are frequently tempted to take the path that looks easy. We seek quick fixes to complex problems and chase after the illusion of effortless enlightenment. Self-help books and the purveyors of diet pills, among many others, are the beneficiaries of our craving for instant gratification.

But in the end, as our tradition notes, according to the labor, so is the reward. Everything that is truly worthwhile is the fruit of significant effort. And oftentimes, we find that the journey is more important than the destination. Torah ends before we make it to the Promised Land, which seems almost an afterthought. The primary point seems to be the lessons gleaned along the way.

In his very wise book, The Lord is My Shepherd, Rabbi Harold Kushner offers an alternative interpretation of a line from the twenty-third psalm that is usually translated as, “God leads me in straight paths for His name’s sake.” Rabbi Kushner notes that ma-aglei tzedek (“straight paths”) literally means roundabout ways that end up in the right direction. He adds: Maybe in plane geometry the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in life the shortest distance to our goal may be an indirect, roundabout route. The straight line between us and our goal may have hidden traps or land mines, or it may be too easy and never challenge us to discover our strengths or give us time to let those strengths emerge.

As we continue to explore ways to transform our community and ourselves, we will inevitably embark upon some of those roundabout paths. Our challenge is to maintain the faith that they are taking us somewhere holy and filled with blessing

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Faith and Will

In this week's Torah portion, Rebecca is told by God that she will bear twins, and that "the older will serve the younger." Shortly thereafter she gives birth to Esau and then Jacob. As the two boys mature, we see some pretty serious dysfunction in the family. Isaac, the father, loves Esau, who is a rugged outdoorsman and hunter. Rebecca prefers the tent-dwelling Jacob.

Given her knowledge of the aforementioned prophecy, one would expect Rebecca to be content to watch as things play themselves out, with her favored younger child inevitably becoming dominant. But what happens?. Rebecca tries, instead, to force God's--and Isaac's--hand. She weaves a plot, in which she helps Jacob dress up as his older brother, in order to "steal" the precious deathbed blessing that their blind father intends to give to Esau. Jacob succeeds in this theft, but the consequences are disastrous: a rift in the family that does not fully heal for several generations.

A question, then: Why does Rebecca show so little faith? In The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Diane M. Sharon raises this question, as follows:

What if Rebecca misinterprets the prophecy? What if its ambiguity is part of the divine purpose? What if, by eliminating the ambiguity—by urging Jacob to steal the blessing meant for his brother—Rebecca is not acting in harmony with the will of God?. . . Rebecca pays a very high price for her determination to ignore the ambiguity of God’s word.

The outcome of Rebecca’s story may, perhaps, teach us to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God’s behalf. Perhaps the gift from our biblical mother Rebecca in this parashah is her prompting us to sense ambiguity, to appreciate nuance—and to have the wisdom and patience to let divine intention blossom in its own time.

I like this lesson: "to allow the divine process to unfold for a while before we decide to take action on God's behalf." We tend to be so impatient. When things aren't moving along the way we wish, we panic and jump to do something. . . anything, really. . . to attain what we desire. The problem, of course, is that more often than not, our efforts backfire and our lack of faith betrays us.

I have noticed, too, that there is frequently a gap between our words and our deeds. Many people who are, on the surface level, very pious, express their faith in phrases like, Im yirtzeh Ha-Shem--if God wills it. . . and yet these same people can be very controlling and strong-willed. Their deeds belie their faithful rhetoric, for in the end, they do not really wish to trust anything to the Divine will. The opposite is also true: atheists and agnostics can live in ways that are very open to whatever life brings.

I have often struggled with letting go, with surrendering my will in situations where asserting the illusion of control is counter-productive. It's hard for me. But I continue to try to be more faithful, and to diminish the gap between my words and my actions. This is just one of the challenges our portion presents this week. It's a good one.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Full Catastrophe

This week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah begins with the death of the matriach Sarah. It notes,"The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. The great medieval commentator, Rashi, notes the odd phraseology of her age and suggests, rather obliquely, "This comes to tell us that all of her years were equally good."
What? How can this be? Is it possible that a person can live a long life in which each year is equally good? Sarah suffers tremendous hardships: infertility, dislocation, deception. Her husband twice tells powerful foreign rulers that she is his sister instead of his wife, subjecting her to possible kidnapping and rape. And without a word to her, he also takes their beloved son, Isaac, the child of her old age, and prepares to slaughter him at God's request. So how could all of Sarah's years be equally good?

I like the response to Rashi offered by the late 19th century hasidic teacher, S'fas Emes. He writes: "But surely there must be differences, variations and changes during the years of a person’s lifetime. There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age. But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days. . . Thus we read in Rashi, “They were all equally good.”

In other words, life throws everything at us: joy and sorrow, good times and bad. We exert little control over the circumstances that we will face. But no matter how difficult things may get, we never lose the ability to determine how we respond to those circumstances. This is Sarah's greatness. Her gift is not a life free of suffering, which is a chimera; it is the determination to find goodness and blessing and opportunity in even the darkest of times.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book called "Full Catastrophe Living." In it, he speaks of the same path exemplified by Sarah: the challenge of finding meaning in both the ups and downs of life. And Rabbi Harold Kushner refers to this as a b'rchah sh'leimah--the full, complete blessing of integrity that comes when we can seek the sacred in the full gamut of our experiences.

When I was in Nepal, I took a photograph that now hangs in my living room. It is a picture of a family eating a meal of condolence--on a ghat, or burial platform where they just cremated their loved one. The picture captures that sense of "full catastrophe": the sorrow of the loss, and the blessing of loving family with whom to mourn. It is about letting the paradox of love and loss and life and death go unresolved; about letting it just be, all of it, what it is, and accepting it as ours. See the picture above.

The great Sufi poet, Rumi, expresses this, too, in his extraordinary poem, "The Guest House." I will conclude with it.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pulling into the parking lot at Capital High School for my daughter Rosa’s sophomore volleyball game a few weeks ago, I was taken aback by a very dirty truck proudly flying a huge Confederate flag. While Rosa scurried off to join her Boise High teammates, I lingered outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the vehicle’s owner. Eventually, I made my way to the gym—but not before scribbling a note, which I left on the windshield of the truck. I wrote: “To Whom It May Concern: I want you to know I was deeply saddened and disturbed by your Confederate flag. I wonder if you realize how much pain this symbol has brought to African-Americans. Having grown up in Virginia, I have seen that legacy of slavery, bigotry, and oppression first-hand. Perhaps you are not aware of how offensive this flag is; if that is the case, I hope you will now consider removing it.” At the bottom of the note, I left my name and telephone number.

After a hard-fought game, marked by fair play and excellent sportsmanship on both sides, Rosa and I returned home. I was in the middle of cooking dinner when the phone rang.

“Is this Dan?” the called asked.

“Yes. Can I help you?”

“You left a note on my boyfriend’s truck. Why did you do that?”

“I think I explained that in the note. I wanted to let you know that the Confederate flag is deeply hurtful to many people. I thought maybe you didn’t realize that it was a symbol of racism and hate when you decided to display it on your truck.”

“Well,” she exclaimed angrily, “we have free speech. And besides, it’s just American.”

And with that, she hung up.

Afterwards, I reflected on her words. The second half of her statement is just blatantly wrong; it is hard to imagine a symbol less American than a Confederate flag, which was the emblem of a nation that launched the bloodiest war against America in our history. But the free speech defense is more complicated.

I would not deny the truck owner’s legal right to display the flag—although not necessarily on school grounds, where free speech is often curtailed (most schools have dress codes prohibiting items such as gang-related clothing or obscene tee-shirts)

Our larger challenge, however, is to remember that not everything that is legal is moral. Much of what passes for free speech is crass, cruel, and counter-productive. We should not illegalize such expression—but we should certainly discourage it.

An old saying proclaims, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Jewish tradition argues otherwise. We believe that words have enormous power; after all, in the Torah’s account, God creates the world with words, proclaiming, “Let there be. . .” We, too, create the worlds we inhabit with the words and symbols we employ to express ourselves. Our right to free speech must be tempered by our responsibility to exercise that right with compassion and common sense. Flying a Confederate flag conjures up a world of anger, injustice and oppression. Surely humankind, created in God’s image, should aspire to higher worlds than that.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Synagogue Renewal: Just Do It!

We Jews are, for the most part, a heady people. We have a rich tradition of text and learning, and an abundance of scholars and scholarship. It is no surprise, therefore, that we like to discuss virtually everything in great detail. We tend to delegate things to task forces and committees that study them from all angles. This is a long-standing Jewish custom. In the Talmud, subjects are debated for scores of pages before any action is taken.

And yet there is always a time when it becomes necessary to "just do it." One can be too conservative, studying issues to death when what is called for is decisive action.

When God offered the Torah to our ancestors at Mt Sinai, they responded, "Na'aseh v'nishmah--we will do it and understand it." The order is significant here. They did not have time to read the small print. Instead, they acted on faith and committed themselves to transforming their community by entering into the covenant with God.

For the past few decades, Jews across America have been studying population surveys and other information about the declining state of Jewish observance. We've applied a great deal of brain power to these matters. But for far too long, there was much more talk (and writing) than action.

Over the past year or so, that has begun to change. Young Jewish groups have begun to press for change. Independent minyans are springing up all over, challenging the status quo. And foundations, like Legacy Heritage and Slingshot ( are now rewarding synagogues and communities that are innovating in practice as well as on paper.

Taking action like this always invites the possibility--no, the inevitability--of failure. But that is the price we pay for success. With no risks, there can be no gain. Besides, the status quo is, itself, a failure. Over the last century, American Jewish institutions have largely produced Jewish illiteracy and spiritual staleness. What do we really have to lose by trying something new?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Simchat Torah, Aimee Mann, and Synagogue Renewal

Sunday morning marked the end of the fall holy day season, with Simchat Torah. Once again, Moses died and the world was created, as we finish the Torah cycle and begin anew. We had a lively, spirited and fun celebration, dancing with the Torah to the music of the Moody Jews. It was a great way to close the holidays, especially for me, as I began my Rosh Hashanah sermons with a piece on dancing.

Later that evening, I attended a concert by Aimee Mann, at the Egyptian Theater. For those who don't know Aimee Mann, she is one of the great singers and songwriters of our time, and she put on quite a show. The first half of the concert followed a set list, which featured lots of favorite tunes and songs from the Magnolia soundtrack, played with grace and skill. But the highlight was the second half, when Aimee and her "band" of two fellow musicians played--for over an hour--all requests from the enthusiastic crowd. During this whole time, they traded off on instruments, with each musician playing assorted guitars, bass, keyboards, pedal steel, and even the recorder.

It was loose, and sometimes humorous. At one point, Aimee stopped in the middle of a song and asked her bandmate: "What chord starts the bridge?" He responded, "B flat major over E7." She laughed, then sighed and said, "OK. Song's over."

And the audience loved it. That was the magic of the show, the loose improvisation, the spontaneity, the superb musicianship and, above all, the sense that the musicians themselves were having a fabulous time. For all of this to happen, they had to be willing to fail now and again. But even the failures were, in a way, successes, pointing to the humanity of the artists, and deepening their connection to their audience. I've been to many over-produced, slick concerts by famous musicians that were not half as enjoyable. The willingness to take chances--backed, of course, by superb talent--made the show.

And on my way home, still elated from the concert, it struck me that this should guide our approach to synagogue transformation. There is a lot that we can and will learn by "going by the book." Expertise is essential and we don't want to re-invent the wheel. But an improvisatory spirit is just as important. When we approach the task playfully--when we have fun--that joy will be contagious. And a willingness to fail will, paradoxically, enable us to succeed. We need both kavannah--our tradition's version of the first half of the show, with a fixed set list--and kevah, the intangible spirit that infused the second half.

Or, to return to the metaphor I used on Rosh Hashanah, and lived on Simchat Torah: in order to dance, we need to know the steps. But dancing is, above all else, about the leap of joy, and knowing that if (or when) we fall, we can get right back up again and keep dancing.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Generic apologies

While most of us think of the Days of Awe as ending with the neilah (concluding) service on Yom Kippur, the Rabbis point to Shemini Atzeret--the last day of Sukkot--as the real conclusion of this sacred season. With that in mind, I'd like to consider a matter of apologies and teshuvah.

It is a common custom in the Jewish world this time of year to approach others and offer a kind of formulaic apology: "For anything I have done over the past year that may have caused you hurt, please forgive me."

The common response is, of course, to grant forgiveness and offer the same apology in return.

So with that said, let me note: I find this tradition at best useless and at worst detrimental to a true effort at self-accounting and repentance.

I believe that generic apologies are meaningless. To apologize for everything is, in a sense, to apologize for nothing. As the old saying goes, both God and the devil are in the details. Apologizing means acknowledging specific things that we have done wrong. Without the specifics, there is something "cheap" about the apology: it lets the one who offers it feel good about apologizing when they have not really done anything at all. It is the equivalent of that classical political non-apology: "Mistakes were made."

My colleague, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman sent me a famous American poem, by William Carlos Williams, about a failure to really apologize, followed by a very funny parody of that piece. The parody captures the problem of generic "apologies" very well. I've included both below.

Meanwhile, let me know what you think. Is there a way to find meaning in generic apologies?

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This is Just to Say

I have run over
Your cat
In the driveway.

This probably comes
As a disappointment to you.

Forgive me
I was in a hurry
And I hate that (f-ing) cat.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Prayer and Poetry

Rabbis often like to debate--passionately--things that most Jews tend not to notice. Recently, in my rabbinic listserve/online discussion group, we visited such a subject: the wording of the gevurot prayer. This blessing, the second in the part of the service known as the Amidah, praises God's power. In its traditional wording, God is m'chayeh meitim--one who revives the dead. This is generally taken as a reference to a classical belief that when the messiah arrives, God will, literally, resurrect our bodies and re-unite them with our souls. Not surprisingly, the Reform movement early on rejected this theology as irrational and in their version of the gevurot, substituted the phrase m'chayeh ha-kol--God gives life to everything.

Yet in the new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, there is a kind of return to the tradition, for it offers both the Reform and the traditional wording as alternatives--m'chayeh meitim and m'chayeh ha-kol. Each rabbi and congregation chooses which version they wish to follow.

In our on-line debate, some of those who prefer the Reform wording asked: how can any progressive Jew espouse bodily resurrection? Well, I responded by noting that I do not believe in bodily resurrection. When it comes to the whole question of an after-life of any kind, I am an agnostic. Nonetheless, I prefer the traditional version. Why? Because for me, it offers a powerful metaphor. In this sense, God resurrects the dead all the time: when trees are reborn in spring, when animals emerge from winter's hibernation, and, more importantly, when we find renewed life and hope after crisis and despair. Talmud itself recognizes the metaphorical use of the phrase, adding that one should praise God as m'chayeh meitim--the one who resurrects the dead--upon encountering a friend or family member that one has not seen in many months.

This debate points to a larger point for me, which is that all of our prayer is metaphor. Truth be told, if I took the siddur literally, this passage about bodily resurrection would be the least of my problems. What about God as King? Or as Shepherd? Or any of the other myriad imagery we use to describe the Divine. On a literal level, as prose, I think the siddur is about 98% nonsense. But as poetry, it is beautiful, life-changing, and visionary. And I believe that this is how the brilliant Rabbis who wrote it intended for us to read it.

The problem is that we live in a world where poetry is a fringe activity. We dabble in it in high school--where we mostly learn to dislike it, and to not understand it. This is tragic, for it leaves us with a literalist view of life that is deadly for religion (and, for that matter, literature and art) Until we learn to read poetically--metaphorically--prayer is going to be difficult at best and, at worst, nonsensical. We have our work cut out for us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Homeward bound

I start heading back to Boise after a great week at camp. The theme for hte week was learning about God--but we did more: we experienced God, in all sorts of daily activities and in the beauty of the singing and the celebrating and the natural environment.

Here's a link for some pics. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Fast Day at Camp

I'm back in the States, working on the staff at Union for Reform Judaism's Camp Kalsman. This is a good thing: if one can't be in Jerusalem, then, Jewishly-speaking, camp is the next best thing. We even have the Jerusalem heat with us here in northern Washington, which is an unusual thing.

But the heat is appropriate today, for it is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this date, the generation that left Egypt was condemned to wander forty years in the wilderness, the first and second Temples were destroyed by fire, the Bar Kochba rebellion failed, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was defeated.

Tisha B'Av is problematic for liberal Jews, because the basic understanding of its theology is that all of these catastrophes were, in fact, divine punishment for our sins. Those of us who believe that history does not function in such a manner must find new ways to interpret and observe the day. Indeed, many contemporary sages have suggested that in light of the fact that Jerusalem is restored and thriving, and most of us do not wish to actually rebuild the Temple and begin offering sacrifices again, we should fast for only half the day. There is some traditional precedent for this, too, as some of our sources argue that the messiah will be born on Tisha B'Av, thereby providing a strand of joy amidst the sorrow.

Still, I'm fasting for the whole day here at camp, mostly in solidarity with the wider Jewish community.

Tonight I'll be going on a camp out with the fifth grade girls, which will be a great way to end this somber day. Indeed, Tisha B'Av is the end of three weeks of solemnity, which began with the 17th of Tammuz. I marked that date in Jerusalem, studying at Hartman. Now, back in America, I am getting ready to move from mourning to comfort, which is the theme of the next seven weeks, which take us from Tisha B'Av to the renewal of Rosh Hashanah.

So I am wishing an easy fast to all who are observing the day, and comfort and renewal in the days and weeks to come.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Homeward Bound

It's now almost 11pm and we are waiting for our flight to NYC, which will board in another hour or so. We have a long night ahead of us.

I have had an extraordinary sabbatical: snow-shoeing in Alaska, touring Andalusia, trekking in the Himalayas and learning in Jerusalem. And it has been a beautiful blessing to have so much time with my Salt Lake City family!

Shortly after arriving home, I'm off to Seattle to paddle with my colleague, Rabbi David Fine, and then for a week as camp rabbi at the Reform movement's regional Camp Kalsman. Back to work on August 14.

May it be a week of safe travels and blessings for us all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

We enjoyed our last Friday in Jerusalem, doing a great deal of walking to catch some things we'd missed over the past couple months. We began with the Ramparts Walk, a hike atop the walls of the Old City. The views were extraordinary, and it was an amazing feeling to be strolling atop these five hundred year old fortifications.

We descended at the Zion Gate, ate lunch in the Jewish Quarter, and then toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is a huge Byzantine structure, dark and solemn, with magnificent mosaics. The space is divided between the Roman Catholics, Copts, Russian and Greek Orthodox, who have lived in uneasy harmony here for centuries (nice to see the Christians are as divided as we are!) I have always loved spending time in churches. The smell of the incense, the towering architecture, the deep silences offer a kind of meditative experience that is quite different from our Jewish spirituality and, for me, complementary.

Last but not least, we walked down the Via Dolorosa, following the stations of the cross, then out the Lion's gate to East Jerusalem, where we caught at cab to the top of the Mount of Olives--the world's most prestigious Jewish cemetery. Our goal was to find a camel ride for Rachel and Jonah--and we succeeded, to the joy of everyone!

I'm attaching a link below for pictures--a great slice of Jerusalem life:.

Shabbat shalom to all

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fond Farewells

We concluded two extraordinary weeks at Hartman today, and I will miss the learning a great deal. It has been such a pleasure to study with terrific teachers and colleagues.

The best part, for me, was the learning I did with my two hevruta study partners. Yitz Miller is a rabbi in Santa Cruz, CA and Pat Fisher is a retired professor from Chapel Hill, NC (where her husband was the Hillel rabbi.) From the start, the three of us developed a wonderful connection to one another; we shared our lives as much as the texts themselves. Indeed, this is what Torah study is all about, for me, when it is at its best: seeing our lives through the mirror of our traditional texts, and finding guidance in the meeting of the traditional narratives and our personal stories. You can see Pat and Yitz and me in the Hartman beit midrash (study hall) above.

We're getting ready to head out on Sunday night, but still have one last Shabbat to savour here. I know it will be a sweet experience.

Shabbat and the Politics of Hope

Last night, Donniel Hartman delivered a lecture on the politics of hope in Israel —or as he put it, in Jewish terms, the Israeli politics of teshuvah. He offered some specifics, some concrete actions, that we can take to restore hope to our difficult discussions around peace and democracy in the Jewish state. More importantly, though, he spoke to the big picture, reminding us, in his words, that “is” should not blind us to the power of “ought.” In other words, realism about the current state of affairs must not make us so cynical that we lose a vision for the future.

It is, I think, very easy for us to use the bad behavior of others to justify our own inaction, pessimism, and despair. It is true: at the moment, we have a dearth of negotiating partners on the Palestinian side. The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Moderates cower, terrorist zealots rule the day. As Yeats put it, the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate conviction. Given this reality, it is no wonder that many Israelis—and diaspora Jews—have essentially abandoned the possibility of peace. But when we give up, we essentially give our enemies the power to corrupt our own souls. Without hope, without vision, we lose our raison d’etre as a state. We should be preparing for peace—and working for it—even (or especially) when we do not see it on the near horizon. This is at the core of what it is to be a Jew—to define ourselves by hope rather than to let others define us.


This morning, we were privileged to hear from Professor Avishai Braverman, a Labor party member of the Knesset. Dr. Braverman has a PhD in economics from Stanford, and a long, distinguished career, including a term as president of Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva and chief economic for the World Bank. He is the rare Israeli politician who exemplifies courage, wisdom and vision.

He focused on what he sees as the four major strategic issues facing Israel today, beginning with the principle of “two states for two peoples.” He suggested that the call for a one state solution—which would be the end of the Jewish nation—grows louder every day we fail to divide the land between us and the Palestinians. It is, in other words, in our self-interest to act quickly and boldly, even though the opposition remains recalcitrant.

Turning to the status of Israel’s Arab citizens, who live in the state itself rather than in the territories, he reiterated the urgency of action. For sixty years, Israeli Arabs have not been treated as equal citizens. The reasons for this are complicated, and can even be justified—but the discrimination remains both immoral and, from a policy perspective, unwise. Braverman suggested that we put a major infusion of money into education and social welfare for Israeli Arabs, who could potentially become an important bridge to peace. As the current government’s Minister of Minority Affairs, Braverman has the ability to make a significant difference here. He noted: “When I was president of Ben Gurion University, we launched a massive effort to educate the Bedouin population, which is growing larger and poorer. If we have learned anything, it is that the key to integrating the community lies with educating girls and women, and raising family income. He is also pushing to bring Israeli Arabs and Bedouins into high-ranking government and corporate positions.”

On the economic front, Braverman spoke against corruption and bureaucracy, and issued a clarion call for justice. He earned a loud round of applause from his audience when he declared, “We must denounce the great lie of economic history—the notion that cutting taxes for the super-rich will lift the middle class and the poor. This has never happened and it never will.” He called for political reform, proclaiming that good people do not want to go into politics in this nation because the government is so frequently a morass of corrupt bureaucrats. And he is working to raise the wages of teachers, recognizing that Israel’s future rests on the success of its beleaguered educational system.

Last but not least, MK Braverman called for a more pluralistic vision of Judaism, which speaks to the spiritual longing of young Israelis—who all too often go to India and Nepal in search of enlightenment rather than finding it at home.


Finally, the Hartman Institute’s founder, Rabbi David Hartman, spoke to our theme for the session in his shiur, “Shabbat as Response to Crisis.” In his trademark wise, heimish, and blunt manner, he reminded us that one way to deal with crisis is to create and enter an alternative reality. This is how Hartman defines Shabbat: a weekly leap into a different world, which we then try to bring back with us into our regular routine.

Rabbi Hartman pointed to the two understandings of Shabbat, both from Torah, and both mentioned in the Friday night Kiddush. Shabbat is zicharon l’ma’aseh b’reishit—a reminder of God’s creation—and zecher y’tziat mitzrayim—a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. When we lift ourselves into the alternative reality of Shabbat, we take both of these understandings into account.

When we proclaim “zicharon l’ma’aseh b’reishit” we celebrate God’s creation, the gift of life. For six days, we use transform the raw materials of nature; on Shabbat, we celebrate the world as it is. The actions which are traditionally forbidden on Shabbat--m’lachah—are not about work, but using our human will to alter nature. Once a week, we shift our reality and surrender control.

And when we focus on zecher y’tziat mitzrayim, we remind ourselves that we must not treat human beings as avadim, as slaves. The Shabbat reality insists that we refrain from seeing human beings as instruments, which is to dehumanize them.


Rabbi Hartman finished with an important charge, which I have been thinking about a great deal as this two week seminar draws to an end. The question, of course, is: how do we take the heightened reality we enter on Shabbat—or during this sacred study time—and bring it with us into our daily lives? This is a real challenge. Moments of enlightenment are not so difficult to achieve; it is much harder and far less romantic to keep them alive day after day. Rabbi Hartman said: the alternative that lifts us out of crisis cannot be an escape. It must translate into the structure of the every day. We must bring kodesh—the holy—into chol, the ordinary. I hope that I am able to do this upon my imminent return to America.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Walking with the Desert Fathers

Today, Hartman gave us a break from our studies, and offered four different tours: an archaeological walk around Jerusalem, a trip to Tel Aviv to visit with Israeli business leaders from the high tech world, a look at modern West Jerusalem through the eyes of a former police chief, and a challenging hike through Wadi Qelt, a verdant stream in the West Bank, about twenty minutes from the city center. Being an outdoors-oriented guy, I chose the Wadi Qelt trip.

Leaving Jerusalem, and passing through the much-debated security fence, you enter a different world. I am a supporter of the wall, seeing it as a necessary evil. It has made a significant difference for countless Israelis, curbing terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, and thereby making it possible for thousands--including me-- to live in Jerusalem without constantly fearing for their lives. Any government's most fundamental responsibility is to see to the physical safety of its citizens, and if Israel had not built the wall, it would have abrogated that responsibility. Still, it is an ugly reality, and one does not feel good passing through it. As I have written here before, I strongly believe that Israel must find a way to get out of the territories--not because the Arabs deserve them (which they don't--they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity) but because being an occupying power does something rotten to the Jewish people.

Still, I must note, much of the West Bank is beautiful, in a rugged and desolate fashion. This is certainly true of Wadi Qelt, a gorgeous spring that flows through the heart of the Judean desert. We walked around, across, and through the water for about ten kilometers, following the path of a Byzantine aqueduct that once supplied water to the city of Jerusalem. The stream bed was filled with reeds and mint and many other fragrant desert plants, which stand out against the rocky limestone cliffs and canyon cut by the water. At several points, hand-holds are attached to the canyon walls, for hikers to grab while walking over narrow ledges. Early in the trip, I took a bit of a fall; thankfully, the only damage was a few scrapes and a bruised tail-bone. I was lucky. We stopped frequently to swim in the clear water, which was cool and extraordinarily refreshing on this sweltering summer day.

At the end of the trail, we came to the Faran monastery, which was established in the fourth century. It was the very first monastery created by the desert fathers, key figures in the early church, who settled here along the streambeds in the Judean desert. The cliffs are filled with caves, which once housed up to 5,000 hermits in the region. Each Sunday, they would come to the monastery for prayers and supplies before returning to their small cave-room hermitages. They spent most of their time engaged in prayer and meditation. This tradition is still alive and well; I spend a week every November on retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiqui, New Mexico, and the monks there ground their daily routine on the practices of the desert fathers. There is no real parallel in Judaism, which lacks a monastic tradition. Sometimes this seems like a bit of a loss to me. I understand very well that Judaism is a communal practice, but there are, I believe, times when we all need the peace and solitude of the desert, as experienced by monks here. Perhaps as Judaism continues to change and grow, there will be more such options.

Tomorrow we get back to text study, but it sure was nice to be out today. As text-bound as our tradition is, it is essential for us to get out into the world, too. I have always believed that nature--just as much as Torah--is an expression of the divine, which we should experience and celebrate. I'm grateful that the Hartman program offered us that opportunity today.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hope and Mysticism

Back to learning at Hartman, after a couple of days off. On Friday, Janet, Jonah and I had a nice walk to the city center, where we did a bit of shopping at the outdoor mall on Ben Yehudah street. It’s a lively place, filled with souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes, and street musicians. As I walked past a talented duo, on violin and guitar, I heard the piece they were playing and hummed along, but couldn’t quite place it. Later, after enjoying a nice lunch, I recognized it as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire.” I wonder if anyone is playing “Hava Nagillah” in Vatican City.

We had a wonderful Shabbat. On Friday night, we went to shul, as we have over the past two months, at Kol Haneshama. The singing was even better than usual, as there were scores of rabbis and cantors from Hartman in attendance, as well as the usual spirited congregants. After the service, we had a very pleasant Shabbat dinner at our apartment, with one of my Hartman cohorts, Rabbi Yitz Miller, from Santa Cruz, California.

On Saturday, we returned to Kol Haneshama. The morning included both a Bar Mitzvah and a blessing of a new bride and groom—and in keeping with congregational tradition, everyone threw candy for each of these simchas. The children then scrambled to pick up the candy, and Jonah and Rachel retrieved—and ate—more than their fair share. We worked off some of those calories, and the accompanying “sugar high” by walking to visit friends in Jerusalem—which was not so easy in the sweltering mid-day heat. It was especially nice to meet Richard Demb, the brother of CABI member Dana Zuckerman. He lives with his family in a rented apartment just a few blocks away from us, and we really enjoyed getting to know them.

During the evening, Janet and I made our way to my alma mater, the Hebrew Union College, where we met the new class of first year rabbinical students (when did they get so young?), celebrated a gorgeous havdallah, overlooking the Old City walls as a breeze cooled the night air, and listened to an inspiring talk, “On Hope” by the HUC provost, Rabbi Michael Marmur. It turns out that the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah (as in Hatikvah, the national anthem) is connected, etymologically, to two different words: kav, meaning thread or rope, and mikveh, a pool or reservoir. Rabbi Marmur challenged us to think of hope using both of these metaphors: as a lifeline, lifting us toward a better future, and as a source of nourishment and renewal that feeds our roots.

Back at Hartman today, we studied Maimonides on repentance, with an emphasis on teshuvah—self-transformation—as one very important response to crisis. And in my new elective, with Yair Furstenberg, we looked at rabbinic discussions with Roman philosophers, two thousand years ago, as pointing to the way toward dialogue as another potentially fruitful response to crisis.

After a relaxed dinner with a schoolmate, Andy Strauss, I returned to Hartman for the evening program: a session with Moshe Idel, the world’s leading scholar of kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. He was charming, down-to-earth, heimish. His scholarship is deeply respectful of the many streams that have born Jewish history, thought, and practice. I'm attaching a picture of our beit midrash/study hall from the Idel lecture.

Tomorrow is a touring day for the Hartman crew, and I will be hiking in Wadi Qelt, a cool stream outside Jerusalem. I hope to have pictures.

Shavua tov—a good new week (my last one here in Israel!) to all.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Surviving and Transforming Crisis

Yesterday, the seventeenth of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar, was a day of fasting. According to Jewish tradition, on this date in the year 70 CE the Roman siege of Jerusalem breached the city walls. Three weeks later, on the ninth of Av, the city fell and the Temple was destroyed, ending one thousand years of Jewish sovereignty or autonomy in the land of Israel. Thus the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are, by Jewish tradition, a time of mourning.

It was, therefore, a most appropriate day to learn more about how our tradition has responded to tragedy and crisis. The morning’s speaker was Melila Hellner-Eshed, who teaches Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University and the Conservative movement’s Jerusalem rabbinical seminary. Her topic was “Strategies for Surviving and Transforming Crisis from Midrash, Zohar and Hasidism.”

We began by learning, in hevruta groups, from texts that she selected for us. I was blessed with wonderful study partners: Yitz Miller, a rabbi from Santa Cruz, and Pat Fisher, a retired professor of public health from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where her husband, Frank, is the retired Hillel director.) We spent almost three hours at our study table. Since the session was about surviving and transforming crises, we took some time at the outset to share our own personal crises. Pat opened, telling us how she survived the death of a child, a son who made aliyah at eighteen and died a year later in the first Lebanon war. From that moment, our learning was completely transformed, from intellectual exercise to deep nourishment for the head, the heart, and the spirit. We were no longer rabbis and laypeople studying abstract texts; we were companions supporting each other as we listened to words from our tradition.

We wrestled with the despair of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”) sat in the dark with the prophet Micah, yearning for God’s light, experienced loss through the poetry of Zelda, Yehuda Amichai and Emily Dickinson, and struggled with a passage from the Zohar concerning the difficulty of finding words in time of anguish.

The most moving texts of all were the sermons of Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, delivered to a desperate congregation in the Warsaw Ghetto in the years leading up to its destruction. These are, literally, words of inspiration, of Torah, from out of the depths of hell. The reader senses that Rabbi Shapira knows very well that he and his entire community are doomed, and yet he never forgets his mission, which is to keep their souls alive, by Torah’s light, even when their bodies cannot go on. On September 13, 1941, he declared, “We can feel only a bone-crushing sensation throughout our body. The universe is blacked out for us. Day and night have ceased to exist.” And yet he urges his listeners to continue to cry out, to raise their voices, for as long as they continue to yearn for God, their souls remain uncrushed.

I am going to end this post with two poems that Melila used to conclude her session. The first, by Dalia Ravikovich, merges the poet’s personal domestic crisis with the tragedies of our shared national history, including this day, the 17th of Tammuz. The second, by Polish poet Leopold Staff, captures, magnificently, the amazement—to the point of disbelief—one often feels upon coming out at the other end of a crisis. His astonishment of having crossed to the other side of crisis is, I suspect, an emotion familiar to many of us.

Shabbat shalom to all!

History of the Individual

I told you nine words

You said so and so

You said: You have a child,

you have time and you have poetry.

The window bars were engraved into my skin

You wouldn’t believe I got through it.

I didn’t really have to

stand it, humanly speaking.

On the tenth of Tevet siege was laid

On the seventeenth of Tammuz a breach

Was made in the walls of the city

On the ninth of Av the temple was destroyed.

In all these I was alone.

-Dalia Ravikovich

The Bridge

I didn’t believe,

Standing on the bank of a river

Which was wide and swift,

That I would cross that bridge

Plaited from thin, fragile reeds

Fastened with bast.

I walked delicately as a butterfly

And heavily as an elephant,

I walked surely as a dancer

And wavered like a blind man.

I didn’t believe that I would cross that bridge,

And now that I am standing on the other side,

I don’t believe I crossed it.

-Leopold Staff

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ethics, Hope amidst Despair and Justifying the Ways of God

Another terrific day at Hartman. We focused on different Jewish responses to crises past and present. In my elective class, on kabbalah and hasdism, we studied mystical passages teaching that imperfection has been built into the cosmic nature of the world since its origins; in an important sense, we are always responding to crisis, trying to bring healing. Three colleagues shared their favorite texts on hope—material from Torah to Talmud to Rainer Maria Rilke. Rabbi Donniel Hartman gave a brilliant shiur on Jewish ethics, reminding us that it is not enough to live by Jewish law—we are called to go above and beyond, to perform acts of mercy and kindness. As he put it, “To go beyond the measure of the law—this is the law!” And Micah Goodman wrestled with perhaps the toughest text in the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Job, with its perpetually vexing question: “Why do good people suffer?” He offered some terrific insights, among them: Job is a story about growing up, about learning that the world is not fair; Job illustrates the principal of pluralism within the Hebrew Bible, as its message stridently contradicts the motif of reward and punishment that runs through so much of the rest of the biblical narrative; and while Job is about trying to justify the ways of God, a more “Jewish” response is to criticize God, and then take up the work of tikkun olam, of healing our broken world. Another teacher quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner on this question: “Asking the world to treat you well because you are good is like asking the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.” Or, as the Talmud notes, “Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow—but the world pursues its natural course.”

I was especially moved by a text from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, as presented by Rabbi Laurie Phillips. It speaks to the heart of all of our crises—personal, professional, and communal. Rebbe Nachman teaches that our challenge, in crisis, is to seek the positive—even if we can only find a tiny seed of goodness—and use it to transform ourselves and our world. Laurie read—and then sang—this text, and I felt a tear come to my eyes as I thought of how I have struggled with depression at times, and how Rebbe Nachman’s words offer hope and incentive to change. I will conclude with Rebbe Nachman’s teaching; feel free to comment if you would like:

Judge one and all generously, leaning strongly toward the good, even if you think they are as sinful as can be. Always look for that place, however small, where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) And by telling them, by showing them, that this is who they are, we can help them change their lives. Even the person you think is completely rotten (and he agrees!)—how is it possible that at some time in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is to help him look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way.

Then, indeed, you will “look at his place” and find that the wicked one is no longer there—not because she has died or disappeared, but because, with your help, she will no longer be in the place where you first saw her. By seeking out that goodness, you allowed her to change. You helped teshuvah take its course.

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them—now go and do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: “Take great care, be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression.” I’ve said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. “No goodness at all,” you find, “just full of sin.” Watch out for despair, my friend, which wants to push you down. That is why I said, “Now go do it for yourself as well.” You, too, must have done some good for someone, some time. Now go look for it, just the smallest bit: a dot of goodness.

That should be enough to give you back your life, to bring you back your joy. By seeking out that little bit, even in yourself, and judging yourself that way, you show yourself that this is who you are. You can change your whole life this way and bring yourself to teshuvah.

It’s that first little dot of goodness that’s the hardest one to find (or the hardest to admit you find!) The next ones will come a little easier, each one following another. And you know what? These little dots of goodness in yourself—after a while you will find that you can sing them! Join them one to another, and they become your niggun, your wordless melody. You fashion that niggun by rescuing your own good spirit from all that darkness and depression. The niggun brings you back to life—and then you can start to pray.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Loving Our Neighbors

Another interesting day at Hartman. We spent a great deal of time studying in hevruta, the traditonal way of reading sacred texts with a partner, and discussing its meanings together.

The first focus was on the difference between the Torah's commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and Hillel's famous reiteration of that principle: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others." We delved into the commentary, wrestling with the differences between these two approaches. I much prefer the Hillel version, for two reasons. First, it focuses on action rather than attitude. It is hard--maybe impossible--to command love; by contrast, it is very reasonable to expect people to understand how they want to be treated, and then to extend that same courtesy to others. It is easier to act lovingly than it is to love. And, for me, to act lovingly is enough. I think it is just a lot more effective to change behavior by addressing the behavior than commanding an attitude adjustment.

And second, I think Hillel sets a lower--and more realistic--bar. Can we really love our neighbors? Strangers? It is hard enough to love our own families, or even (especially?) ourselves. I believe "love your neighbor" raises impossible expectations, and thus sets us up to fail. Hillel, by contrast, does not demand that we be angels. He asks only that we co-exist peacefully. For now, that seems sufficient.

Our second text was the book of Jonah, and what it offers us as we seek to respond to crisis. God orders Jonah to prophesize to Nineveh. Jonah tries to run, but after the long excursus with the Big Fish, he eventually does come to Nineveh and does God's bidding, telling the people that God is about to destroy their city. Then something amazing happens: the people actually listen to the prophet and repent.

God responds by retracting the divine decree and sparing the city. And how does Jonah react to this? Angrily. He is furious that God does not wipe out Nineveh. Perhaps Jonah thinks that God has made him look bad, or maybe he just really believes the city is unworthy of divine mercy.

At any rate, God's and Jonah's divergent reactions to the situation in Nineveh represent two very different responses to crisis. God recognizes that realities shift, and therefore the appropriate response at one moment--anger and justice--no longer applies when things change (i.e. after the people repent.) Jonah, by contrast, is stuck. Once he has prophesied the city's destruction, he cannot see any other option. He is intent on sticking to the original plan, for he lacks resilience in his response.

So, too, with each of us, in every crisis. We can respond with innovation and flexibility, or we can just keep doing what we've always done, ignoring the fact that our reality has changed. We can be like either God or Jonah--the choice is ours.

I'm heading back to Hartman for dinner and then home for the evening, with a lot to think about!