Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflections on CCAR

Okay, I'm back from NOLA. I've been mostly blogging at the official blog site, but for those who didn't keep up. I'll post what little I did this week. Then I'll be catching up on sleep and gearing up for Shabbat! I've added a little bit of video to what I posted before but the images are 'native' to the blog posts.

Just got into the hotel, sadly too late to register. Got to fly down with a ‘certainty’ of rabbis (as Peter Sagal insisted was the technical term for a plurality of rabbis), including William Kuhn, Peter Rigler, Eric Wisnia, Carolyn Bricklin and Andrea Weiss. Looking forward to catching up with more colleagues tomorrow!


I first read Roger Kamnetz’s The Jew in The Lotus around the same time as I was studying Kafka and Nachman of Bratzlav (separately) so it was bashert (or at least wonderful luck) that his new book, Burnt Books, converges on these very different yet similar topics. The book, which he discussed today in a pre-convention study session, is an intellectual biography (of sorts) of two wildly different individuals: the tormented hasidic master (to use Art Green’s turn of phrase) who may have been a tzaddik ha-dor and the tormented secular writer of the twenties, both of whom were consumed with the fire of their ‘torah’.

I’ve been reading the book with great interest; both are some of the great storytellers of ‘modernity’ (though Nachman would not have appreciated that term) and both deal with the very profound issues of spiritual alienation in their writing. And both burned their books. As Kamenetz writes: “The gesture suggests that the act of writing in itself is profoundly important, even if no one ever reads it, a prospect most writers today would find difficult.” And in fact, for both writers, it was the act of writing that was sacred; the fear, of course, was that the wrong readership would somehow malign their texts, reduce them and reimagine them inappropriately (which to some degree has come to pass: as Kamenetz points out, most scholars think Nachman was insane, and everyone has claimed Kafka as their own to the point that there are thousands of Kafkas running amok in bibliographies).

The discussion itself wasn’t so much about Kamenetz’s book (although it was about that) but about the nature of the spiritual discourse we engage in as rabbis. At least, that was my question. For many of us, to talk about God is to encounter a gatekeeper, much like the one in Kafka’s parable of the Law, or any number of Bratzlaver tales. We face obstacles to God encounters again and again, and the question becomes, what then are our spiritual values? Like the young Jews of Kafka’s era, we have become disillusioned with Modernity and are trying to reclaim something of the ascension of the soul, even while we face the twin atheisms (as Nachman put it) of critical thinking and the emptiness of the soul that happens when we descend to nothing. So what are we then left with? Secular values. To quote: “Chutzpah is not a jewish spiritual value. If you want to claim that it is a spiritual value, you’re going to have to do a lot of work. It is certainly a post-modern secular jewish value supreme. is chutzpah what the soul wants? Is it about the soul? That’s the question.”

So how do we answer the question? For Kamenetz, we must engage the soul through our feelings, and overcome the obstacles, work our way deeper into the pain we feel in order to approach God. For us, the question might be: how are we the Gatekeepers, and how are we the ones at the Gate? How do we remove obstacles and how do we help guide our congregants through their own spiritual obstacles? What can we do to help those around us encounter and engage their souls, and bring their souls back from the brink?

Like a Bratzlaver tale of a lost princess, the ending is not clear, except that we do overcome the obstacles. And we do so, at least from the vantage point of Kamenetz, by going to those places of hurt ourselves, and running the risk that we ourselves may not escape the descent.

Hope others who were at the session will chime in with their thoughts and observations…


There is something really wonderful about seeing a classmate in action. One of my friends (Rabbi Dan Fellman) observed today that we so rarely get to see each other ‘doing our thing’; that once we’re out of school we get together to study or for conventions, but most of us don’t get the chance to see how we’ve grown and developed as rabbis and who we’ve become since ordination.

For me and many of my classmates, today was one of those days, as Dr. Joshua Garroway, my classmate and friend, presented on the other side of the Prophetic voice. it was classic Josh: with great thoughtfulness and careful analysis of the text (with heaping servings of humor) we looked at the dark, disturbing side to the Prophetic Vision of the end of history; that is, for all the world to be one and God’s name to be one (as we read in Aleinu, quoting Zechariah) we must first encounter catastrophe, disaster, and destruction. Again and again the prophets put forward not just images of peace and justice and redemption but also suffering and turmoil, as a necessary precursor to the age of redemption. As Josh said: “Our prophets speak of war, devestation and destruction as inevitable forerunners of peace, justice and harmony at the end of history.”

So what do we do with that voice? Our first instinct is to disregard it (apparently the RAMBAM agrees), or to leave that aspect of the prophetic vision to those nonliberal religious traditions that are focused on some vision of victory born from misery. Or, we could recapture the text, and here is where the innovation happens: that perhaps these texts could be reimagined. Not merely as descriptions of God’s wrath against Israel and the world, but also of the universal empathy that emerges after a crisis. That we, when faced with the horrifying (the tsunami in Japan, or the earthquakes in Haiti), reveal a profound universalist and compassionate streak as evoked in the Aleinu. For the Prophets, that crisis is necessary to create redemption; but what would it mean to capture that sense of care for all without the crisis? And how do we challenge our congregations (and ourselves) to engage in that kind of love in a meaningful way?

Needless to say, it was a marvelous chance to study, and a great opportunity to see a colleague and friend put forward his best self.

Finally (and self-indulgently) an apology for so late a report. One of the wonderful things about CCAR is all of the unplanned or semi-planned stuff: the conversations in the hotel lobby or walking down the street, dinner with classmates, late-night sessions talking about some project or another. Tonight had all of those wonderful encounters, so I find myself delayed, but rejoicing in the sacredness of each opportunity.


When I was asked to blog the convention, I found it really, really funny. Frankly, I still do. Sure, I Facebook, I blog, but those just feel like digital versions of what I do already. The blog is a bulletin article–a more interactive one to be sure, but similar in nature. Facebook is a 24/7 Oneg conversation: “Rabbi, there’s this article I saw…” “did you know so-and-so is in the hospital?” “Did you hear this joke?”

So the Freehof Institute seminar on Halacha and the Internet was of great interest to me, especially because of the eagerness on the part of rabbis and our congregants to use technology and the questions they raise. Does someone watching a live-stream service count in the minyan? And is it ethical or appropriate to even have a live-streamed service? How does our connectivity effect or ability to observe Shabbat or make sacred time for ourselves? Does that technology enhance or detract from the Shabbat experience.

Sadly, I was only able to hear the first two papers, but they raised great questions and important nuances. For the live-streaming of services, for example, there are compelling reasons to broadcast the worship of a congregation, not the least of which is bikkur cholim: a homebound congregant, the ill grandmother of a bar mitzvah who can’t travel. And, there is precedent in the tradition for the online viewer to be consideredyotzei through their participation (though they wouldn’t count as a 10th member of the minyan). However, what questions does it raise about copyright permission with regards to the liturgies and music being used? What about the permission of the worshippers (or lack thereof) to be photographed? And how does the presence of the camera change the service? Does tech support impugn the ability to lead a meaningful service for the congregation? And what happens if the service ends up on YouTube, especially if there’s something on the video embarrassing to one of the participants? All of these questions need to be tackled before just jumping at the chance to broadcast to the world.

The second part of the seminar–on connectivity and Shabbat–requires an equally nuanced view. Does technology add oneg and kedusha? For some, perhaps: the use of Skype to talk to grandma, or the ability for a worshiper to share his inspired feelings from a service on Facebook (at NFTY convention this year the participants were encouraged to tweet services, for example). But what if it’s the inability to put down Angry Birds at the cost of time spent with family. And of course, what about us, for whom Shabbat is already a ‘busman’s holiday’: does our need (real or imagined) to be on and available all the time make technology and even greater temptation to work when we should be enjoying some much-needed menucha?

As the presenters left the questions unanswered so shall I, but it’s worth asking the questions as we move toward ‘teching’ up our Jewish experiences more and more...

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