Friday, May 29, 2009

Seeing the Forest from the Trees (or what Shavuot means to this Reform Jew)

I seem to always be doing yardwork on Shavuot. This goes back to my own confirmation in 1992, when, after the oneg was done, the pictures taken and the robes were turned in, I went home and mowed the lawn. So this tradition continued today. After a wonderful service lead by our confirmation class, I came home, changed into my shleppies, and went out with tree saw and stump spray to cut a (much larger than I thought; otherwise I'd have used a power tool) dead branch off the tree in the front yard.

While cutting and schvitzing, it occured to me that none of this felt especially mitzvah-dik, you know? Here I am, on the third of the three pilgrimage festivals, on the day commemorating kabbalat Torah, Israel's accepting of the Torah, and I'm doing my best Dubya impersonation cutting brush. I mean, it wasn't like I even enjoy sawing for half an hour and schlepping the branches down to the woods--this was, without a doubt, avodah (work). But, I thought, when else do I have time to do it? And besides, I'm a Reform Jew.

Of course, as soon as I thought that, my inner hasid (or what Rabbi Michael Holzman calls the 'hasid on your shoulder) cringed. So is that all Reform Judaism means? That I can do whatever I want, as long as there's a veneer of Jewish tradition and a few paeans to social justice? All too often, I think many of us both in and outside of Progressive Judaism feel that way; that it means we care less, do less, observe less, feel less, are less. And it's easy to see how we fall down that rabbit hole; we focus so much on what we "fail" to do as Jews, measuring our Jewishness against some litmus test. "I don't keep kosher, I'm a bad Jew." or "I don't observe Shabbat."

If there's anything about Judaism that frustrates me endlessly, it's this notion. We fail to recognize and celebrate what we do, in fact, do, or we fail to connect our doing as especially "Jewish" doing, thus leaving our actions unrecognized Jewishly. And sometimes I think we fail to appreciate when Jews observe mitzvot (or 'invent' them; you'll see what I mean in a minute) in creative or interesting ways; that to keep vegetarianism for ethical or moral reasons, and therefore keeping Kosher by default, makes it less significant than if you're buying Rubashkin's (and you can see my sermon on that topic at the Shir Ami website, but I digress).

Thankfully, our kids this morning understood what it's all about. Their theme for the service was "Why stop at 10 commandments?" After studying the 10 commandments all year, knowing that they would read the aseret hadibrot today, and after looking at a list of 10 suggested 'modern' commandments created by Rabbi Elliot Strom, David Sandman, Rabbi Shira Joseph and myself, they asked themselves what their 11th commandment should be, would be. And then they described their own 11th (out of 613) commandments. Some spoke of loyalty and support of family, and friends. One railed against conspicuous consumerism, another spoke about caring for the elderly. A couple talked about preserving our heritage as Jews, one talked about the importance of Jewish learning.

Now, I can point to actual mitzvot either in Torah or the writings of cha'zal (the rabbinic literature) that relate to or directly correspond to our kids' 11th commandments. However, I applaud their creativity in coming up with these on their own, and understanding them as Jewish values. More than that, the fact that they appreciate that Torah is not merely a list of 10 or 613 commandments but a source of inspiration for their daily conduct, that Judaism can have an influence over their behavior in a positive way (and they can find Jewish roots in their ethics and values--and want to) gives me a great deal of pride. Even if they're not completely facile with the tradition (and really, who is?) I know that, at least at some level, these kids will turn to Torah, even as they put their own spin on their understanding and interaction with the mitzvot.

Much has been made of the deteriorating financial situation in the Jewish world, especially the Reform movement--the talk of closing campuses of Hebrew Union College, the actual closing of URJ offices, etc. But a movement is more than just a prayerbook, a campus, or an office. That's infrastructure, not Reform. Reform Judaism is what our kids practiced this morning as they stood at their Sinai to accept Torah; that the tradition is there for us to make our own, to reimagine, to make relevant and modernize, to make real, to expand upon. To see not only the trees of the individual mitzvot, but the forest of Torah waiting for each of us.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What, another one?

Yes, dear readers, I have fallen into blogging. My hopes is that this will allow me to maintain a connection with my friends at Shir Ami and build new connections at Congregation Beth Emeth, my new spiritual home, as well as those who might stop in along the way and those who've journeyed with me in the past.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first question is: who am I, and what is this all about?

Well, I suppose I could point you to my Facebook (look to the side) or linkedin profile, or point you to my new congregation's website (again, elsewhere on this blog) or the website of my soon-to-be former congregation, Shir Ami. Heck, you could probably just Google me, if you were so inclined, and come up with all kinds of interesting and not so interesting things about me (including some random t-shirts at Amazon. We are not amused).

But each of these social networking and internet utilities only tells you so much about me, and doesn't really answer the question posed in a meaningful way, though it does point to how these social networking tools and the internet in general is shaping identity. What network am I in, and does it define who I am? Am I really from Philadelphia, or am I still a Cape Codder at heart? Am I defined by my 'friends' list, and what does it say about me not only to my small, realspace community, but to the world? Just because Google finds five pages of stuff about me, does that make my words and actions significant in any way (or any thoughts worth blogging about)?

The third book of the Torah, Bamidbar (Numbers) , also struggles with this question of identity for the people of Israel. Throughout the book, they are counted, sent to spy on the land they are meant to 'inherit' (that is, take by force), divided up into roles, asked to wear special garments, divided again between rebels and observers, time and again trying to define what it really means to be Israel in the wildnerness and once they've settled the land. For us as Jews living at the end of the 58th century (or beginning of the 21st, if you prefer), that question of identity is even more important. We as a people are at a crossroads, experiencing greater freedoms and creativity than ever, while that very same freedom and creativity are calling us to question whether being Jewish is even relevant in the world today (much hay has been made of these issues by people smarter than me. To start your exploration, look for Stephen Cohen's article on the changing shape of Jewish life, Douglas Rushkoff's book, which asks all the right questions, and Hayim Herring's blog. The rest is commentary; go and study). Transitional moments can be exhilerating as we look to a new direction, or they can provoke anxiety as old assumptions and relationships fall away.

That's why I'm starting this blog. I personally am in a moment of transition, from associate rabbi of one congregation to senior rabbi of another, which of course has implications on my family life (aside from new house, school for the kid, etc.), social life, theological and spritual life, etc. At the same time, both my congregations are in moments of transition (though I'll most likely focus on transitioning into the new shul), calling their entire identity into question, at least on certain levels.

So enough already. Who am I? I'm a father, a husband, a son and a brother. I'm a friend. I'm a student and a teacher. I've been blessed to serve Shir Ami for 6 years as a rabbi, and am further blessed to go serve Beth Emeth for however long God allows. What is this about? Transitions, my thoughts on the world and how I relate to it as Jew, the Torah I explore, wacky ideas about pop culture, our conversations and the Torah that comes from them.

Mostly, it's about questions. The questions we ask each other, that we ask of the tradition, that we ask God, that God asks of us. Sometimes it'll be about the answers we create, and sometimes it'll just be about the exploration of those questions.

So, here we go!