Tuesday, December 29, 2009
This question came up again at Torah study this past week, even. What is 'mainstream' Judaism? The Judaism experienced in synagogues, JCCs, and other places of affiliation, or in marathons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", pictures from Maccabi games on Facebook, and the Adam Sandler Hanukah song? Or does it even need defining?
So, I ask you: what does it mean to be authentically Jewish? Does it have to do with affiliation? With personal practice? Is it an ethical, cultural, or ethnic thing? Is it undefinable? Post your responses here (or leave a response when this gets posted as a note to my facebook)!
In the meantime, a happy New Year to everyone!
Friday, December 11, 2009
So as we settle in for a night of Adam Sandler songs, gifts, candle lighting, fried foods (and maybe even going to services, *cough cough*), let's take some time to remember the real miracle this holiday celebrates: that all of us, created in God's image, may be free to live with security and liberty.
Want to make your own Chanukah more Human Rights oriented or are looking for some Shabbat Table Talk? Check out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Or use this prayer for Human rights by Rabbi Brant Rosen.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Can't we all just get along and WRESTLE? 1: to contend by grappling with and striving to trip or throw an opponent down or off balance, 2 to combat an opposing tendency or force, 3 to engage in or as if in a violent or determined struggle...
A perfect quote for this week's parasha, parashat Vayishlach. This is the famous scene wherein Jacob wrestles with some ambiguous someone (himself? an Angel? Esau? God? The text leaves the question open) and receives a blessing and a new name: Yisrael, one who struggles with God or if you prefer (and Arthur Waskow does): Godwrestler.
In my sermon tonight (should be updated by the end of the weekend), I'm going to talk about this idea of Sacred Struggle, and how critical it is for the health of a synagogue. Here's an excerpt:
I know, however, that confrontation and conflict are hard , both to do well and to do at all. No one wants to confront the rabbi, or to express concerns or comments, until the steam builds up to such a point that the confrontation becomes, shall we say, explosive.
And if there is a place where we should be able to have this experience, it is in the synagogue. This is a place where we feel and experience deeply, where we are at our most empowered and at our most vulnerable, a place that we want to stand up for certain values even as we want it to fulfill our every need. This cannot be a place where opinions, no matter how heated, no matter how divergent, are minimized. Every person’s voice matters in synagogue; not just the board member’s or the rabbi’s or the teacher’s, but everyone’s. We are all equal ‘stakeholders’, if you will. No one who truly cares and has the congregation’s health at his or her heart should feel that it was better to sit on disagreements until they fester, and find themselves leaving the synagogue or ‘causing trouble’, complaining about minor points that don’t speak to the real issue at hand, the one that’s burning inside. We cannot allow ourselves to be doctrinaire, to minimize and exclude opposition, or disallow innovation and growth. At the same time, this does not mean the synagogue exists to always affirm every request, regardless of how it relates to the community’s mission or sense of self; at some point a synagogue exists to respond to the needs of many, not only the few or the one, and no matter how reasonable or thoughtful the argument, sometimes the synagogue—with regret and love—cannot answer in the affirmative. Real community allows for dissonance—or if you prefer, polyphony—for the full variety of voices to be heard, joined together, in all our messy, divergent glory, somehow motivating all of us to take ownership, to encourage creativity that we may work together to strengthen the synagogue. So long as we see our challenges as belonging to someone else and we remove ourselves—our allow us to be removed— from the process, we will never grow as individuals or a community, and we will deny each other the blessing that could make us more committed, more inclusive, more thoughtful Jews.
Now, please understand, I'm not itching for a fight every week. Rather, I want people to feel comfortable enough to engage in meaningful conversation here--with me, other members of the leadership, with each other--without feeling either that they have to win at all costs nor that they are going to lose no matter what. I want people to have the opportunity to be transformed and blessed by the experience just as Jacob was. Of course, that takes hard work. It takes conviction but also a sense of the sacred in the other, a desire for learning as much as (if not more than) a desire for winning. A love of the individual and of the community. My hope is, when conflicts arise, we'll be able to approach them as Jacob is able to approach them: as an opportunity for blessing and growth.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
With that in mind, a couple of links to help us.
First, my friend Rabbi Phyllis (of ima on the bima) shares her Thanksgiving 'Seders' on her blog here.
Second is Rabbi Hayim Herring's exploration of new rituals at his blog, Tools for Shuls, here.
And finally, as we at CBE continue to test Mishkan T'fillah, you can find it on Google Books (at least in chunks) here.
Finally, a question: what are the rituals that you look forward to, that make the holiday (or Shabbat, or a different holiday or life cycle event) meaningful for you? What would it mean to change those rituals, either by introducing new ones, or taking old ones away?
May you have a day full of gratitude, family and food.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
We are blessed to have those who, in choosing to marry a Jewish person, have chosen to commit themselves to the Jewish people and to our congregation. While they have not converted, they live Jewish lives, support Jewish spouses and family members, raise Jewish children, and have chosen, in loving a Jewish individual, to love us as a people. I can't think of anything more worthy of a congregation's blessing, but as they used to say on Reading Rainbow, you don't have to take my word for it. Read Rabbi Marder's blessing below.
Blessing for Non-Jewish Spouses—Yom Kippur Morning - URJ
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Needless to say, it was pretty amazing, despite my sore throat (and sounding like I swallowed a wood chipper) and only being there through Friday morning. It's always great to learn from--and hang out with--old friends and colleagues who are, on the whole, way better at this whole rabbi thing than I am. So always glad to learn from them.
Also was happy to see my dad's (which is to say, the Jewish Welfare Board's) display and their Torah for the Troops project (which was also presented at the GA). Make sure you take a gander (we may even find a way to get them here!).
Saturday, October 31, 2009
This was somewhat controversial because neither of them are Jewish. Both are wonderful people who have been a part of the Jewish community for years (the bride worked at the Kutz Home in Wilmington, and the groom has obviously been a part of our congregational family for a very long time), but with neither being themselves Jewish (but rather considered ger toshav, or 'resident non Jews', by virtue of coming from Christianity, one of the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths), are they entitled to a blessing from a congregation's bimah?
For me, the answer was a simple 'yes'. We bless non-Jews from our bimah all the time and it is permitted by both tradition and the Reform movement to have non-Jews participate in worship services, at least to some limited capability (see this responza for more info). Furthermore, we know that a great deal is permitted by the traditional viz. non-Jewish participation for the sake of preserving peace between neighbors, including burying non-Jews in Jewish cemeteries with Jewish funeral rites.
All of this is especially relevant for this past week's Torah Portion, Lech Lecha. In it, God informs Abram as he sets out for Canaan that "in you shall all families of the earth be blessed". One could see, then, an imperative on our part to bless non-Jews in our midst, especially those who have contributed to the health and sanctity of the community.
Our bride and groom certainly fit that category; he has been a beloved member of this congregation, more than a 'mere' employee but truly someone who has served as the bedrock of the synagogue, caring for it as if it were his own home and its people as if they were his own family, and she has contributed to the well-being of the members of our Jewish community.
I know that many of us would see this (no matter how much they love the two individuals) as a slippery slope leading toward porous boundaries and a breakdown of conviction, and I appreciate that notion; we must always be watchful of the precedents we set, to avoid violating the religious sentiment of the congregation, and more to the point, to not uproot the ethics of the synagogue. But when two people have contributed to the care of the Jewish community at large, and one of the two has specifically labored with love and kindness for the betterment of the synagogue--his synagogue--can there really be any doubt? For me, the opportunity for us as a congregation to bless these two wasn't just a nice thing to do, but was the right thing to do, an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that, when someone takes the sanctity of synagogue life as seriously as he does, when someone cares for people the way they do, then truly all of us are blessed.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Installation is a funny thing. For one, it's a funny word to use for the employment (or I suppose, authorization) of a rabbi for a community. I suppose it's less pretentious than "ascension" or "we do whatever he says now" (which would, of course, be a patent lie), but it does sound like the installing rabbi should be bringing a hammer and nails or something.
There's an interesting commentary here about the nature of the installation. The short version: we put a lot of emphasis on celebrating a rabbi who hasn't really done anything yet and who's relationship with the congregation is still nascent. I don't go with the author's thesis that it somehow is supposed to 'put the congregation in their place' or otherwise assuage the leadership of their guilt when they undermine the rabbi's authority. I do think we spend a lot of effort on the transitional moments, and that's a good thing.
Mind you, I'm not personally comfortable with this kind of stuff--as I've said a few times, I'm interested in the work and doing the work and don't expect or look for recognition. But for a congregation--especially one that has had very consistent and long lasting leadership--acknowledging these moments becomes critical, in the same way any life cycle event is critical to the life of the individual.
So tomorrow will be a good and, hopefully, joyous day. With the Emeritus installing, my father leading the service, and people from Shir Ami and CBE present, it should be a really lovely moment. I'm especially looking forward to seeing people from so many different parts of my rabbinate, who have shaped me and continue to inspire me. And I'll be missing those who can't make it: coworkers, teachers, friends.
Below is the congregational charge the past and current president will be reciting, along with the congregation, which better speaks to this moment than any other blather I could share. Hopefully we'll all live up to each others' expectations...
As a rabbi in Israel
As a teacher of Torah to our congregation
Our hope for you is holiness;
Our prayer for you a sacred reflection
of the purpose towards which we all strive.
Be among those who cherish the truth,
Who banish falsehood with their faith.
Be a teacher of sacred words with your deeds.
Guide our children that they may grow
to appreciate the timeless legacy of Jewish living.
Be the same, within and without –
searching with your heart,
and strengthening us with your hands.
Aspire always to be loving, compassionate, humane and hopeful.
Become the prayer for goodness that is ever upon your lips.
Be Yisrael – a model of the sacred struggle we all must embrace.
Be Yisrael – a bearer of God’s goodness;
A blessing to all whose lives you touch.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Ruth Brin is, arguably, the most important Jewish liturgist (male or female) of the 20th century. You can't pick up a siddur from any of the non-Orthodox movements without feeling either her direct influence (e.g. one of her poems) or indirect influence. Without Brin, I would argue, there would be no Marcia Falk, no women's voice in liturgy today (which means no Kol Haneshama or Mishkan T'fillah), and we would be the poorer for it.
Am I being hyperbolic? Probably, but her influence is everywhere, and I'm an unabashed fan. Not long after this conversation with Dr. Sarason, I found an old copy of Interpretations in the basement of the Klau Library as part of a book giveaway. It was a gem of a book (you can find it as part of Brin's anthology Harvest, which is still available.
Interpretations , for those who don't know, is a collection of English poems Brin wrote in the 1950s as an interpretive response to every weekly Torah portion, plus all the holiday portions. Accompanying each is the text from the Chumash (usually Hertz) that she cited. There on the pages before me were the poems written by a fiercely, profoundly bright, worldly, Jewishly literate woman, the product of the midwestern Reform Movement (specifically, from St. Paul), a graduate of Vassar, a daughter of two immensely smart people, who was just as comfortable with the wilderness of Minnesota as the wilderness of Sinai. In every one was a hiddush, a new interpretation, interweaving the rabbis and a very modern viewpoint to create a fully accessible, poetic understanding of the sidre.
Needless to say, I fell in love with her poetry instantly. I've used her liturgically countless times, teach on her poetry all the time (or use it to teach the text), and always find new insight whenever I go back to these pieces as well as her other poetic works.
I've often called her a proto-feminist--she used masculine language for God, she only took up wearing Tallit and Kippah later in life, and her poetry often echoes with the issues of the 1950s more than today (atomic war, the still newborn state of Israel, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the aftershocks of World War II and the Holocaust)--but (like Penina Moise before her) she created and presented an idea of a fully engaged Jewish woman in congregational life: not only in philanthropic works or the education of children but in her own self growth, and in the liturgical life of the synagogue, something that I'm still amazed to see shuls struggling with today.
Ruth Brin died this past week--ironic and poignant for me, as I was about to teach on her on Sunday. I never had the chance to meet her (though I've talked to people who have). I pictured her as witty, sharp-edged (in the best sense), thoughtful.
Bahiya Ibn Pekuda wrote that "days are scrolls; write upon them what you want to be remembered." Brin has written a whole host of scrolls, and has added to the wealth of Torah. May she be remembered for blessing.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Ben and I were very good friends in High School; we met through youth group (specifically, NFTY's New England branch) and, like many good high school buddies, we drifted away after I graduated. I kept in touch distantly, through friends of friends, for a little while. And like many, we reconnected a year or two through Facebook.
I wasn't surprised to see that he had committed himself to a life's work of Tikkun Olam, or that he had joined the US Army. From the distance of the internets it seemed as if he had continued to be that person he was in High School: smart and funny, self-effacing and dedicated. It was a blow to discover he had been killed, doing what he had dedicated his life to fulfilling: making this world a better place, bringing water infrastructure to remote corners of the globe. It was heartbreaking to see old friends mourning his loss, and though our relationship was pretty remote at this point, I felt it. How could I not? Here was a peer, someone young, not even married, and now he's simply gone.
His loss doesn't affect me directly; I haven't talked with him (save perhaps an email or two) in well over 10 years. If it weren't for Facebook, the odds are that I wouldn't even know he had departed this world. But I do. I think of the house I visited and the family who took me in and how much pain is in that home. I think about his fiancee (who I've never met) and the empty house she has to come home to. I think about what his final moments were like. I think about his friends who are mourning him deeply and with a sadness that, as Ruth Brin wrote, takes them down to the darkest depths. I think about what Yizkor will be like for them this year, as they try to say Kaddish through tears and anger and make sense of something utterly senseless. Mostly, I miss my friend.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
And if you're looking for my High Holy Day Sermons: Rosh Hashanah (both evening and morning) have been up; Yom Kippur's sermons should be up soon. Hope you had a meaningful fast and are sealed for blessing in the book of life.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Now, this isn't to playa hate; I think a lot of us are 'seekers' who come to community, sometimes to get our 'ticket stamped', sometimes because we're not really sure what we're looking for, and because we don't have the language to articulate our needs or wants, or because the community also doesn't have the vocabulary to share its narrative with its congregants in a meaningful way, people leave faith communities and no one is really sure of why. Reasons are given: cost, kids graduating, no longer active, etc., but at the end of the day, I think the article makes a strong point that for any of this to work, it needs to be like any other healthy relationship--that is, something that is worked at by both parties. We as a congregation (and its professional and lay leadership) must articulate clearly who we are and what we're about, and provide a framework for people (Jews and non-Jews who would choose to be a part of the community) to identify and explore their own spirituality (and I would add, their own sense of commandedness).
So, with Yom Kippur less than 24 hours away, how do you want to take ownership of your half of the relationship? Or, to put it another way, what are your spiritual (or if you prefer, 'mitzvah-dik') goals for this year? Not New Year's resolutions per se; I mean specifically where you'd like your soul/being/personhood to grow and develop?
Something more to think about, and hopefully distract you from images of Five Guys Hamburgers tomorrow night and Monday.
On another note: a big thanks to everyone who helped make Rosh Hashana as wonderful as it was, and those who are going to make Yom Kippur incredible. People have been wonderful generous with me and very loving, which I deeply appreciate, and it's been wonderful to be able to celebrate the holidays with my family in a way we haven't been able to do since the mid-90s. So that's nice.
And easy fast to you all (and yes, I'm going to wish you that, despite what the Reform Movement blog is saying), and may we all find ourselves inscribed for good in the Book of Life.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Rosh Hashanah in a new congregation is very exciting and daunting. For many folks this will be my first time meeting them. It will be different for all of us, and I hope a positive experience. It's a wonderful way to start the new year, but also a lot of responsibility. I've gotten some really terrific feedback in my first couple of months, and I hope this allows us to continue the conversations as we move forward this year.
I'm blessed that I'll get to have my whole family together for the holidays this year, for the first time since I was in High School. At the same time, I'll be missing friends I've made over the years who are celebrating at other communities.
May this year be a good, a healthy and a sweet New Year for all of us; one that realizes its promise and potential.
On a related note: I'll be on The Rabbi Speaks again this Sunday at 9am (ish). Click the link for the live stream the day of. A little sermon on Teshuvah (though less timely than it could have been) for the second day of the holiday (or the day after, if that's your thing).
Sunday, September 13, 2009
May his memory of righteousness be a blessing.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Today isn't a day for politics, but reflection, so I'll point you two the Reform Movement's page recalling that day nearly 3000 days ago, nearly 1 day for each life lost (as President Obama said).
And while we're talking, here's the President at the memorial at the Pentagon today.
Zichronam livracha: may their memories continue as a blessing for us all.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Not twenty four hours have passed since I sent my e-mail to you all. Somehow my e-mails to you and ARZA Leadership [and those from others more important than I am] got to Alan Hoffman in the Soch'nut, the Jewish Agency, and I have received a personal letter from them. If you go to the MASA website now, the offensive streaming ad and the video are gone so, if you haven't already seen them, you thankfully no longer can.
It is hard to believe that I have spent most of this great weekend attached to a computer and on the phone, but it was worth it.
I guess that "Yes, we can" covers lots of situations.
Here's her previous email as well:
Do you know what MASA is? Their website states: " MASA enables young Jews from all over the world to spend a semester to a year in Israel on any of over 160 programs. " http://www.masaisrael.org/masa/english/. Now look at the streaming picture near the top on this web site. It is MASA's latest very aggressive ad campaign targeting "Jews "abducted' by intermarriage." It shows these people as though they are missing-like putting our missing children posters on milk cartons. "As part of the campaign, similar ‘missing person’ notices will be plastered on walls around the country." The web site on which I originally saw this article is:
Special issue: New MASA Israel ad campaign targets Jews 'abducted' by intermarriage.
In the article the following is buried:
"MASA is a project of the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency of Israel, and made possible through the generous support of the United Jewish Communities, the Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod - UIA."
This means that your donations through organizations that fund the Jewish Agency for Israel, JAFI, support this campaign. I am outraged at what I perceive as a new attack on Reform and Conservative Judaism (as well as the other streams), not to mention you or your children.
Please read the articles. They are short. If you are outraged as I am after you read them, I urge you to respond to Alan Hoffman at "Hoffmann,Alan" <Alanh@jafi.org>.
And looking at Ha'aretz yesterday, it looks like they've dropped the campaign.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Now, I appreciate the idea of getting Israeli Jews to think about what's going on in the greater Jewish world and engage in the work of preserving a strong diaspora, but with a roughly 50% intermarried rate in the United States (at least according to the Jewish Population Survey and subsequent surveys), doesn't the idea of describing intermarried Jews as 'abducted' (again, from the Haaretz article) seem a bit...harsh?
No doubt, the realities of intermarriage are challenging, both on the micro level (how does a nuclear family navigate issues of holidays, life cycle, values, etc. without offending the extended families) and the macro (how do we as a Jewish community engage interfaith couples and families meaningfully and sensitively?). Steven Cohen, in a paper he wrote a few years ago (and presented at the CCAR just before publication) makes it clear that the normal tools used to encourage Jewish affiliation simply don't work for this cohort, but we as rabbis have a very clear opportunity to be 'gateways' into Jewish practice for both the Jewish and non-Jewish partners. These are not 'lost' Jews (as Cohen reports toward the end, most of those who intermarry report positive feelings about being Jewish), and need not only appreciation and attention from the Jewish community but also to be steered toward the resources and tools that will help them to make good choices.
Perhaps I'm making too much out of nothing and this is a good campaign that understands its (largely Israeli) audience, but it seems to me that it's better to engage interfaith families (or as one woman described it to me, "Jewish famililes with a non-Jewish parent"), find points of contact and expanding from there, all the while (as Cohen argues) making sure our youth take advantage of all the resources available to them (day school, camp, Israel trips, youth group, etc.). Yes, it would be fantastic to have Israeli Jewish society engaging in this conversation as well, but I'm not sure I want this to be their starting point.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
In our tradition, the notion of preparation is an important one. We cannot just go diving into the experience; we require some kind of trigger, some ritual or modality that readies us and puts us in the proper frame of mind. We recite a blessing before we study Torah. We engage is p'sukei d'zimra (songs of praise) and birchot hashachar (morning blessings) before we get to the 'meat' of the morning service. And we anticipate the days of Judgment and Atonement with a month of spiritual 'calisthenics'. For many of us, the highlight of Elul is the observance of Selichot, the last motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) before Rosh Hashanah. The service is the High Holidays liturgy in miniature, with references to Al Cheyt, Avinu Malkeinu and other prayers recited by the penitent and contrite of spirit. These prayers are recited late in the evening (or even midnight) and many congregations then use the opportunity to switch their Torah mantles from their year-round, 'colored' mantles to High Holy Day white, signifying the congregation's anticipation of the New Year.
There's a great article from My Jewish Learning on ways to incorporate Elul into our own daily lives, but as we prepare for the summer to end, the school year to begin again, the changing of the seasons from summer warmth to autumn chill, I encourage you to start preparing your own "New Year's Resolutions". In fact, if you have any in mind, feel free to share them below!
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Friday, August 14, 2009
The debate is familiar one: does talent trump character? Here is a convicted felon who did something most of us find pretty repulsive, but does that mean he should be banned from the game for all time? Especially in light of the fact that other players in the NFL have gotten away with comparative wrist-slaps for more offensive behavior?
The debate is familiar, but it's the wrong debate. The real question (and it was posed weeks ago on NPR by the Barbershop Guys) is this: are we a people (they asked 'nation') who forgives a person (after appropriate punishment and recompense) or is there no possibility of redemption? In context of the High Holidays, the question is this: there ever the possibility of tshuvah , of real repentance, and of real kaparah, real atonement, or are there some things we cannot forgive or be forgiven for, no matter how contrite or penitent the offender?
Sounds like a sermon, doesn't it? Well, it will be--next week in fact. So I'm not going to preach it now (that would ruin the fun, after all), but I'm going to kick it back to you. Riddle me this (paraphrasing L. Spence): do we rehabilitate, do we forgive, do we allow for atonement and redemption or do we continue to incarcerate, literally or figuratively? Are there some crimes or sins that are unforgivable? Who makes that determination? What does a person have to do to prove real contrition or penance? Let's hear your comments (especially 'Iggles' fans out there)