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.