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.”