Thursday, July 30, 2009

Renew Our Days as of Old

"An apocryphal story is told of Napoleon Bonaparte entering a darkened synagogue and observing weeping Jews, sitting on low stools. Asking what misfortune had occurred to cause such behavior, he was informed that it was the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.

On that day, as Napoleon learned, Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the fall of the Fortress of Betar. The day, marked with a 25-hour fast and a public reading of the book of Lamentations, signifies not only the loss of Judaism's singular holy site but the end of independent political sovereignty and the eventual expulsion, a second time, into exile.

On hearing that story, Napoleon exclaimed: "A people that cries these past 2,000 years for their land and temple will surely be rewarded." " (Yisrael Medad, from this article).

Today is the 9th of Av. For Liberal Jews (and most American Jews) it is not a day of special commemoration. For some of us, the day only makes sense if we assume ourselves to be in galut, or exile, which many of us do not, even if we live in the diaspora. For others, there is nothing to mourn; the Temple Cult was an archaic practice of animal sacrifice and we as a people have moved on to a higher, more ethical and spiritually meaningful mode of religiosity. For yet others, there is a sense we should be celebrating the return (and over 60 years) of a Jewish state in Israel.

For many Jews, however, it is still a powerful day. There is nothing like going to the kotel, the Western Wall, on the eve of the 9th of Av and seeing an endless sea of people of all ages sitting low to the ground, reciting the liturgy in small groups and literally weeping. And this is in Israel, in Jerusalem!

For what do they weep? I think that's a worthwhile question for us to ask, even if we feel ambivalence toward the day. This is a chance, some 7 weeks before Rosh Hashanah, to take stock. And there is much to lament. There are too many of us are not free: those in Darfur. Those in Iran. Those brought to this country to work in near-slavery conditions. Gilad Shalit. There too many of us are in exile, physical and spiritual, who feel a disconnect from their neighbors, their land, their country, their people, their God. Too many of us worry that Israel is going down the wrong track, that synagogues and other Jewish institutions are missing opportunities to be relevant, that Jews are increasingly voting with their feet, and are voting for something other than their tradition.

Will Eisner, in Dropsie Avenue, his 3rd novel of the "Contract with God" trilogy, views the lifespan of a neighborhood as a constant cycle of people moving in and people moving out, either by choice or happenstance, where to remain is to be exiled from opportunity but to depart is to abandon identity. The 9th of Av gives us an opportunity to look at the world around us and its brokenness--as well as our own sense of alienation, whatever it may be--and just have a moment of catharsis, a big cry-off so we can approach the New Year with, as the prayerbook says, "hope in our hearts and eternity in our thoughts." It is that nadir, that depth that allows us to rise again to move to creation, redemption and revelation again.

Lamentations ends with the words we recite at the end of the Torah service: "Renew our days as of old!" We long for an idealized past, be it through "King Arthur" fantasies or retro music stations , but we also look toward a future Redemption, a wholeness that we can only make together.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

An interesting follow up regarding the busted rabbis in NJ

Slate posted this article, initially explaining the myriad (traditional) Jewish positions on organ donation, but dealing with the possible thought processes the rabbis in NJ recently busted for all kinds of stuff--including dealing in black market organ donation--might have had. That is, in their minds, they may have thought they were saving lives (and if they benefited, what's the harm?).

The best point in the whole article comes from Rabbi Michael Broyde of Emory University: "The real question is, Why is there a shortage? Why do people go out and buy kidneys? Because they desperately need kidneys and there aren't any," he says matter-of-factly. "There's no black market for feces," he adds. "There's no black market for things that nobody wants."

Another reason we as Jews should leave aside so-called taboos and 'prohibitions' against organ donation and take up the cause, knowing that it will save lives.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bad for the Jews?

Well, it ain't good...

I don't usually comment on current events (frankly, do I usually comment on anything?) but this...

I'm not going to pretend that it isn't possible to let the 'power' of being clergy go to your head: gifts from admirers take a weird turn, you start seeing your discretionary fund as literally your discretionary fund, and before you know it you've gone down the rabbit hole. We've seen it with plenty of rabbis, ministers, and other leaders from various religions and denominations (isn't that what Doubt is all about?). Chazal (the rabbis of old) knew that they were in a position that could lead even the most upright person astray. That's why they expend so much ink reminding themselves of their responsibilities:

"Antigonus of Socho received the Torah from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Be not like servants who minister unto their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you."

"Shimon ben Shetach said: Examine the witnesses diligently and be cautious in your words lest through them they learn to falsify."

"Hillel used to say: He who aggrandizes his name, loses his name. He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it. He who learns not, forfeits his life. He who makes unworthy use of the crown (of the Torah) shall pass away."

Those are just from the first chapter of Pirkei Avot. I could go on ad nauseum.

American jurisprudence asks us to view them as innocent until proven guilty, and even if that is true, or that they undertook this adventure in their minds to benefit their congregations somehow, it should be a reminder to all of us in positions of (relative) authority of our task and our responsibility...

The Rabbi Speaks (on the radio)!

So one of the interesting things that happens when you're a rabbi in a medium sized, geographically concentrated Jewish community is you get to go on the radio! WDEL , the local am station, has a Sunday morning program called "The Rabbi Speaks", and all the local rabbanim get to record a 9 minute segment every other month or so. Today was my first recording. Gerald Butts, introduced me to the studio and did the recording (I came in under). It was fun, albeit nervewracking (like most people, I'm not thrilled with the sound of my own voice).

So if you're interested, you can hear the program live at WDEL this Sunday at 9:05am (just hit the "Listen Now" button on the website). I'll try to figure out if I can get a copy to post legally or if they archive it online somewhere. Also forgot to get pictures; will do so next time in September.

I'll be curious as to the response, as it involves a little Pink Floyd (two different songs). So we'll have to see!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Golden Foundational Myth

So this past week I've been following the buzz surrounding the new "Harry Potter" film. As friends of mine who either a) don't have a 2 year old or b) have better babysitting saunter off for Midnight showings and get their Muggle on and the film cruises toward the $300 mil mark (first HP film since the first), I've been thinking of the meaning of all this Hogwarts hoopla. (Full disclosure: I like the films and am happy to wear t-shirts with the above image because it's funny. My wife, however, is pretty sure she's undercover for the Ministry of Magic.)

There have been other series of children's fantasy stories that have captured the imagination (CS Lewis' Narnia stories, Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings is an obvious example) of youth, but these books have been different. For one, their reach has been greater and faster. The Lord of the Rings may command legions of elf-eared followers today, but for years it didn't have the same cache. Additionally, unlike the other examples (and most similar literatures) this one was written by a woman. Yes, the chief protagonist is a lad, and there's nothing overtly feminine or masculine about the story (though the presence of a group of serious female secondary characters is a nice side bonus), and yet one can't help but notice the protection Harry and his friends enjoy is almost matronly; unlike Aslan, who encourages his charges to be brave and remains a distant figure, Dumbledor and crew are very much present in the lives of our merry band. Finally, though they're not obviously written with the intention of being a parable, they have spoken to an entire generation and very much have grown up with that generation, as Harry and company (and their readers) have gone from childhood through adolescence into early adulthood. While the last book came out some years ago, the movie release has all the trappings of a cultural phenomenon (it even comes with Hogwarts' themed pop music).

What makes these stories successful--or any children's literature--is that it's not just telling a compelling a story, nor trying to take itself too seriously (I'm looking at you, Eragon!), but somehow, telling our story. Yes, our lives are much more mundane; we do not go to schools with moving dormitories surrounded by man-eating spiders, we do not play soccer on broomsticks and mostly, the most evil person in the world isn't out to kill us, but we can easly empathize with his troubles; a family that doesn't know what to do with him, bullies on the playground, the angst and doubt and loneliness of being a teenager, as well as the more overt tales of ego, the abuse of power, authority figures preserving position rather than protecting their charges. And surrounding that we read the story of a boy evolving into a hero; through good mentors, loyal friends, adventures that raise him up and carry him down to the absolute depths. Whether intentional or not, Harry's story works because it doesn't stop at being a romanticized story of growing up nor a mere adventure tale, but is archetypal in its reach. It is, essentially, modern mythology, a foundational story. We understand who we are as a culture in this moment better through those books and these characters. Yes, it's escapist literature--so was the Illyad and the Aeniad. But like those two books (that were modern pieces of literature once) or Shakespeare, they teach us something about our society and our values.

I bring all this up because I think it's important for us to understand the idea of foundational literature, to appreciate what is meant by myth. So often we use the term to mean the opposite of true, and yet myths really get to the deeper truths. They convey through metaphor ideas that we may not be able to utter or identify but that we can all appreciate. This is why Torah (and the whole of Jewish literature) is so compelling; we may learn nothing 'historical' from the books of
Tanakh, but we learn what values our ancestors held dear and come to appreciate what it means for us to be a society, a civilization, a religion, a people. Likewise, when we hear the stories of fellow congregants about their experiences in the congregation; those stories become foundational and eventually mythological and shape the culture of a place profoundly, such that the story ceases to belong merely to the original teller, but eventually belongs to the whole community, even generations later. When Sonia Sloan shares with the congregation the stories of her great aunt and grandparents and parents and their connections to Beth Emeth, they cease to 'merely' be the stories of one family and become everyone's stories, and even if we forget the details ('where did that priestly benediction come from?') we have some latent understanding--inarticulated, metaphorical--of what it means to be a member of this congregation.

So hopefully my wife (and maybe even I) will get to see the film before it's out on DVD. In the meantime, I'm going to be listening and learning the stories this congregation and its members have to share. While they may want for special effects, they're no less magical.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Some pics from this morning's study session

Torah study? In Borders?

My friend, Rabbi Eric Goldberg, recounted to me a story of a conversation he'd had with a Chabad (Lubavitch) Rabbi. The local Chabad community had just built a new building and Eric complimented them on the place. The Chabadnik graciously accepted the compliments but followed that up by saying, "you know, it's not about the building."

Synagogues (and JCC's, Moshe Houses, etc.) can be wonderful gathering places filled ith learning and love, labor and support. They can also be (for some) intimidating, like going into a private residence of a person you don't know. As important as it is to have a physical spiritual home, some place that you can look around and feel welcomed, a sense of belonging, it's also sometimes important to take those sentiments and that sense of community and 'port' it outside the building itself. There's a reason the first dedicated holy place for the Israelites was the mishkan , a temporary, portable dwelling place; so that Israel could always take that sense of community (and the holiness necessary to frame the community) with them everywhere.

It was with that in mind (among other, more practical reasons) that a bunch of us met at the Borders in Wilmington to do a little Torah Study. I was approached by Sybil Schwartz and a few others asking whether I'd be willing to teach a little something different, maybe Haftarah. The summer happens to be a perfect time to study Haftarah, with the 10 Haftarot of rebuke and consolation that mark the movement from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av to the High Holidays and Sukkot. So I told them that if they got me 10 people (that seemed like a nice number for some reason) I'd teach at the Borders, where they met last summer. After marketing it pretty thoroughly, 49 of us got together in the cafe at 9:30am to study Jeremiah, with the plan of gathering again the following week.

Was this due to curiosity over the new guy? Most likely. Did the marketing help tremendously? Without a doubt, but I'm pretty sure that, by having it in a public space, a safe space, we made this study session (blessings and all) accessible to people who had never considered studying Haftarah, unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews, and even members of other congregations.

Sometimes it really isn't about the building; it's about the learning and the experience that we can share. Now, the question is: how do we take that energy and 'port' it back to the synagogue itself?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Learning from others

So a pastor/high school buddy of mine posted a blog entry to his Facebook (Thanks David!), which caused me to go looking around and find this entry. Yes, both are filled with the language of the Church and Christianity, but both share a lot of insight into the problems we have in Jewish congregational life today. The over-reliance on staff (who burn out in the process), the desire to grow the membership base without paying attention to what brought people to the congregation in the first place (especially the mission and vision of the congregation), the desire to be all things to all people and instead be burdened with false expectations from laity and staff alike.

So, let me ask this question: what makes a congregation (Jewish or Christian) 'good', from a staff and a volunteer perspective? What qualities are you looking for in a spiritual home? I'd love to hear from those of you who have volunteered and who work professionally in the congregational world...

Sermons up

Sermon page is up. You can find it here.

Don't look for a sermon each week; I'm going to be alternating with text studies (this week on Parashat Pinchas) and we've got some guest preachers this summer, but expect it to be updated pretty regularly. I may try to figure out a way to include a write-up for the text studies a la the URJ Shabbat Torah Table, but we'll have to see if I get that formal (or if it even makes any sense!).

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Just a couple of pics from this week.

A couple of pics from my hanging the mezuzot on the doors of my office. We had a nice little crowd of mostly staff to help me sanctify the moment of starting my new position. Thanks to Jerry Arenson for the pictures and Cantor Mark Stanton for the hammer.

So, who are you again?

So this week was a good first week. Great first day, wonderful first service last night (everyone was really lovely and happily overlooked my multiple snafus), and a lovely first meet & greet at Esther and Paul Timmeney's house in Chalfont.

Meet & Greets are essential to the transition process for any clergy person. I did a bunch when I became assistant rabbi at Shir Ami and I'm doing 11 or so here at CBE. I see it as a first date with the congregants; a chance for people to get to know me and ask me questions, as well as a chance for me to know the individuals in the community better. It is not, as Bill Kahn and Terry Bookman point out, an opportunity to understand the gestalt of a congregation nor to start formulating a vision for the community. That happens after a lot more work and energy getting to know people and their values, the congregation itself and its history and traditions, and really living in the congregation in a meaningful way. Sure, I might have ideas at this stage (mostly based on my personal vision of my rabbinate), but it would be the epitome of hubris for me to redact any kind of meaningful agenda after getting to know a self-selected group of congregants in my first summer.

It is a chance to ask questions, though, and, as I said, to get to know one another better. I thought the questions on Wednesday night at the Timmeney's were great: probing, respectful, curious and helpful for creating a framework of exploration for all of us. Sadly, I was so caught up answering others' questions I forgot to ask my own!

So here's my question (and it's the same two I'll ask at every M&G): Why did you join CBE (or your own congregation)? And why are you still a member?

The reason I ask those questions is pretty basic: it's self-evident at this point in Jewish history that the days of affiliation for its own sake are long gone. People belong to a shul (or JCC, or chavurah, or whatever) because of a sense of need and belonging; that is, the congregation (using that as a baseline) fulfills something for the individual member and allows the individual member to fulfill something in others. Joining a synagogue is a consumer act, on face value ("I joined to have my kids 'bar mitzvahed'", "I joined because my family always belonged here", "I joined because I liked the Cantor", etc.), but staying a member is an act that transcends simple needs fulfillment and enters the realm of community building.

So, for those of you reading out there, riddle me this: why do you belong to the community you belong to (be it Shir Ami, CBE, or another one) and what compels you to stay?