Friday, September 30, 2011

For Many Orthodox Teens, ‘Half Shabbos’ Is A Way Of Life | The Jewish Week

For Many Orthodox Teens, ‘Half Shabbos’ Is A Way Of Life | The Jewish Week: "At a recent campgrounds Shabbaton sponsored by a local Modern Orthodox high school, the teenage participants broke into small groups after the meals, as is usual, to talk with their friends.
On their cell phones.
Of the 17 students who attended the weekend program, said 17-year-old Julia, a junior at the day school, most sent text messages on Shabbat – a violation of the halachic ban on using electricity in non-emergency situations."

'via Blog this'

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5772

And here's my sermon for yesterday morning!
So I’d like to ask a question. Truth be told I’ve been meaning to ask it for a while, but I’ve been a little intimidated. Some of you will find the question silly, and others yet may find the question offensive. Please understand that I’m truly, honestly asking the question not to be judgmental or cute or smart, but because it’s important.
Why are you here?
Seriously, why are you here?
I know for some, it’s ‘tradition’; the question doesn’t even arise because the answer is self-evident. What else do Jews do, after all? For others, it’s about family; the chance to be together once or twice a year. Some of you are here for memory: you’re not really ‘here’ per se, but are hearing the sounds and feeling the feelings of your childhood. Then there are those who want to connect spiritually: you want to do the hard work of cheshbon nefesh the accounting of the soul. Yet others are here for the music, a few might be here for the sermon, and at least one person is here because the clergy look really good in white.
And then I’m guessing that there are many of you who truly do not know why you’re here. You come every year—or perhaps this is the first year in a long time—looking for something, hoping for something, expecting, well, you’re not sure what. Connection? Inspiration? Meaning? Something other than confusion and tedium, which you encounter all too frequently as you stumble over unfamiliar prayers (not just the Hebrew ones, but wacky over-formal English as well), as you try to join in music that doesn’t quite sound like what you remember from childhood, as you sit surrounded by people who all seem to know each other, but not you. You could come up with a thousand reasons to be anywhere else, but you chose to be here. And so you sit, waiting more-or-less patiently, for something to happen, some trigger to go off, some ‘a-ha’ moment, waiting for your Abraham moment.
What do I mean? For that we have to look at today’s Torah portion, the binding of Isaac. We tend to focus on the act itself, gruesome and awful as it is, a father nearly sacrificing his son to the voices in his head. Or we focus on the Ram at the end of the story, the justification for the Shofar blast we’ll hear momentarily. But there is something else happening in the story as well. When God calls to Abraham he uses the same words as when Abraham first heard the divine voice: Hineini, here I am. When his son looks at him plaintively and calls out to his father (for comfort? For inspiration?) he uses those words again: hineini, here I am. When the angel cries out to stop Abraham’s hand as the knife is about to plunge, again Abraham says Hineini, here I am. Three times in this portion Abraham says “Hineini”. It’s a simple statement, yet one filled with meaning. The Torah doesn’t give us tone of voice or a sense of emotion—it’s all action verbs and nouns—but we can well imagine how that word, “hineini” is said in each moment along this terrible and awesome journey.
Now please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting we’re waiting for a voice in our heads that tells us to kill our children. This is Rosh Hashanah, not “The Shining”. However, I think there’s something emulative about coming to a place unfamiliar and declaring ‘here I am’. There is expectation and readiness, to be sure, but there’s also openness to what comes next, the willingness to be challenged, to be taken seriously. The text says God was testing Abraham, and we assume the test was the binding and near-sacrifice of his son. But what if the test was really whether or not Abraham would listen at all? What if Abraham passed the test just by saying ‘hineini’, here I am?
Of course, the high holidays aren’t the only ‘hineini’ moments in our lives. In fact, I would argue that our days are filled with hineini moments, that potentially every moment of every day is a hineini moment. When we acknowledge someone in need and respond in kind, when we engage in love and compassion for the other, when we have that moment of connection with someone else, when we read sacred text, sing and celebrate with gusto, we are saying “Hineini, here I am. When we speak these words, we are seeking not mere survival, but nourishment for the soul, connectedness, meaning. We remember the words of Herman Hesse in Siddhartha:
When someone is searching," said Siddhartha, "then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. .. striving for your goal, there are many things you don't see, which are directly in front of your eyes."Too frequently, however, we don’t say ‘hineini’, we don’t pass the test. We don’t listen hard enough, we don’t reach out enough. We judge, we engage in snark, we find others wanting. We keep up our armor lest our vulnerabilities be exposed. We engage in a world where everyone is trying to score points and interaction is a zero-sum game, where openness is weakness. We see it in our political discourse, we see it in our personal interactions. There has to be a winner and a loser, and none of us wants to be the loser. In this environment, who can take chances? Who can build real trust, who can learn or grow? Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not speaking of walking on eggshells, afraid to insult the other. That is mere political correctness, a game of ‘gotcha’ where we never reach real dialogue because we’re too busy trying to figure out the right words. That too is a kind of armor. I’m speaking of the constant search for criticism that we find on the radio and the internet, the devaluation of the self we see in magazines that are meant to inspire ‘beauty’, the kind of meaningless point-counterpoint we saw in the internet debate on CNN a few weeks ago, between teachers and parents, arguing that one is right and the other wrong, that parents always distrust teachers and make their jobs more difficult, or that parents need to look out for predatory educators more interested in assumptions than learning. Are those really our only two options? Is it impossible for teachers and parents to hear each other, ask questions of each other, challenge each other meaningfully and respect one another’s positions? Is it impossible for us to stand before someone and say: “Here I am, open to the possibilities that our encounter can lead us someplace better”?
So let me make a suggestion for all of us, even the ones who already ‘know’ why they’re here. Let’s learn to say ‘hineini’. Let’s learn to be open, to be vulnerable, and to create space for others to do so as well. Easier said than done, I know, and we can come up with all kinds of reasons to keep those defenses up, to go on living life the way we always have, but if that were true, you wouldn’t be here today, would you? You wouldn’t be sitting in this place, waiting. You’re not at yoga, you’re not at the gym, or work, or your favorite restaurant, or at home; you’re here. Be here more: not only in this physical space (though that’s good too), but in this state of being, open to what is before you.
We end with a prayer, a poem written by Rabbi RachelBarenblat, a prayer for a service leader, but one that I think applies to all of us.
Here I stand  painfully aware of my flaws  quaking in my…shoes and in my heart.I'm here on behalf of this kahal even though the part of me that's quick to knock myself says I'm not worthy to lead them.All creation was nurtured  in Your compassionate womb! God of our ancestors, help me as I call upon your mercy.Don't blame this community for the places where I miss the mark in my actions or my heart in my thoughts or in our davening.Each of us is responsible for her own teshuvah. Help us remember that  without recriminations.Accept my prayer as though I were exactly the leader this community needs in this moment, as though my voice never faltered.Free me from my own baggage that might get in the way. See us through the rose-colored glasses of Your mercy.Transform our suffering into gladness. Dear One, may my prayer reach You wherever You are for Your name’s sake.All praise is due to You, Dear One Who hears the prayers of our hearts. May this day open us to all the moments when we may say Hineini, “Here I am”, and may we be so transformed and moved to hear others and ourselves, to hear the Voice even as we hear the sound of the Shofar. Amen. 

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5772

Here's my Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon from this year.
So here’s how the story goes, as recounted by Martin Gilbert:
“While visiting Israel, a teacher of mine encountered an American minister who started badgering him with hostile questions and comments about Israel, and finally asked him, "What is it that you Jews really want?"“My teacher responded with the following story:At Stolpce, Poland, on September 23, 1942, the ghetto was surrounded by German soldiers. Pits had been prepared outside a nearby village where the Jews would be led and then shot. The Germans entered the ghetto, searching for the Jews. A survivor by the name of Eliezer Melamed later recalled how he and his girlfriend found a room where they hid behind sacks of flour. A mother and her three children had followed them into the house. The mother hid in one corner of the room, the three children in another.The Germans entered the room and discovered the children. One of children, a young boy, began to scream, "Mama! Mama!" as the Germans dragged the three of them away.But another of them, only four years old, shouted to his brother in Yiddish, "Zog nit 'Mameh.'  "Don't say 'Mama.' They'll take her, too."
The boy stopped screaming. The mother remained silent. Her children were dragged away. The mother was saved."I will always hear that," Melamed recalled, "especially at night. 'Zog nit Mameh' ­ 'Don't say Mama.' And I will always remember the sight of the mother. Her children were dragged away by the Germans. She was hitting her head against the wall, as if to punish herself for remaining silent, for wanting to live."After concluding the story, my teacher told the minister, "What do we Jews really want? Well, I'll tell you what I want. All I want is that our grandchildren should be able to call out 'Mama' without fear. All we want is that the world leaves us alone."This story has been close to my heart ever since I first heard it. There are a number of things we could take away from this awful tale. One is that even today, even now when we as a people are as secure and as prosperous as we have ever been, when we can finally stop wincing in anticipation of the violent act, when our charities have worldwide reach and do profound good throughout the world (witness IsraAid, American Jewish World Service, and Mazon, just to name a few), even today, there are those who, be it out of spite or ancient hatred or well-meaning ignorance—would seek to do us harm. That there are still people in this world who hold dear the notion of the Jew as weak, helpless (alternating, of course, with powerful and insidious) and a strong State of Israel undermines that deeply felt idea.
Another idea—one that follows directly from the first—is that a strong Israel in partnership with the Jews of the world is our best chance to live in a world without fear. And that means, of course, our own advocacy and support: Through AIPAC and J-Street and their advocacy for a strong Israel, through support of institutions like ARZA, The Reform Movement’s Zionist wing, and through the purchase of Israel Bonds.
 I also draw from this story an idea that Israel—and by extension the Jewish people—wish merely for survival, for equal treatment, to be, as Melamed said, left alone. And certainly, there is that sentiment I’m sure among those in this room and in the halls of the Knesset: that we want to be left alone, that only then will we as a people and the Jewish state have real peace. Why else would the security fence have been built, except to say most definitively to the Palestinians: ‘we don’t want to talk, we don’t want to be blown up, we don’t want to be at war but we don’t think we can be friends, so leave us alone.’
 I take something else from the story as well. Yes, we want to survive, but survival means more than mere existence. There is an ethical, a moral element to survival as well. Many of us want Israel to be more than just a country like any other, with prostitutes and crime and dirty sidewalks. We want a state that is Jewish and Democratic in the full sense of both of those words. We want a Jewish state that represents the values of our People,  that stands, to quote our Scriptures, as a light to the nations. Perhaps this is Diaspora thinking; perhaps Israel has nothing to prove to other countries and by espousing this belief we are fooling ourselves somehow, forgetting our lessons in realpolitik, too concerned with exceptionalism. However, as an American, I come by my exceptionalism honestly, and just as I want the United States to be a nation that, if it were a person, we could describe her behavior as moral and upstanding, so too do I wish for an Israel that fulfills the words of our prophets, that is informed not just by our heritage of oppression but our heritage of joy and commitment to the betterment of others.
Of course, this is all well and good to speak of this theoretically utopian Israel, what about the Israel that exists, the facts on the ground? What do we find there?
Well, let’s find out!
It’s been too long since Beth Emeth had a trip to Israel. We have been away from that country for too many years. Much has happened since then—heck, much has happened in the last year! The uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and throughout the Middle East, sometimes resulting in regime change, sometimes revealing the oppressiveness of those in power, have transformed the middle east. Israel has seen herself transformed as well, with her citizens piling into the streets to peacefully protest financial, civil and social inequalities, demanding  a better life for themselves and each other. And the Palestinian Authority saw this month as a month to make their move, to finally express their longing for their own home in ways that many of us find understandable, but challenging and disconcerting, to say the least.
And yet, despite all these changes, despite all that’s happened in Israel in the last several years, how well do we know the country? Oh, we’re informed in our news consumption, in communicating with relatives back home, but you and I know that’s not the same thing as being present, being physically there, being amongst Israeli Jews and Arabs and Druze, touching the earth, breathing the air, listening to someone else’s cellphone conversation in Hebrew, and arguing every last point with the guy at the makolet corner store when all you want is a coke and he wants to talk politics, jutting a cigarette-ornamented finger at you to make his point.
If you can’t tell, I miss Israel. I miss the country, her people, every aspect of that place. And my guess is many of you are like that as well—even those of you who haven’t been to Israel. That’s why it’s time to go back. To go to Israel, to meet her people, to see the places—ancient, historical and contemporary—that make the place the homeland of our souls, and to better understand what it means to advocate for Israel.
Because, I will tell you, there is no better way to advocate for Israel than by being there. Yes, it is crucial to support Israel here at home, through support of ARZA, AIPAC, J Street, and other organizations. Yes, to buy Israel bonds is as close to achieving Maimonides’ highest rung of tzedakah: for by buying them, we give Israel the ability to invest in her own people, who can lead meaningful lives, making the whole land bloom not just with the flowers and eucalyptus trees of the old songs of the yishuv, but scientific, technological and educational endeavors as well. But there’s a reason AIPAC is taking 81 congressional representatives and senators to Israel this fall. They understand that it’s one thing to read a really nice brochure or follow things online, or to bring in all kinds of experts to speak with us; it’s another to go and learn for yourself, to experience with your own hands and own eyes. And that is what all of us need to do. For those of us, like myself, who trend left-of-center, we need to go to Ariel University and Ma’aleh Edumim on the other side of the green line, and ask ourselves if these ‘settlers’ are really the demons we think they are. And those of us who trend right, and see no partners for peace among the Palestinians, need to be challenged as well, and speak with Arabs who want to see their children grow up as our children grow up, with a sense that their homeland is free and at peace.  Friends, we need to go to Israel, you and I. We need to be there, to feel Israeli earth beneath our feet, to breathe the air. So it’s my pleasure and honor to announce that we are going to Israel. It has been too long since Beth Emeth had a congregational trip to Ha’Aretz, ,and so this summer, we are going, and I want you to come with me.
If you’ve never been to Israel, now is the time to go: we’ll go to Tel Aviv and experience Shabbat in Jerusalem, stand where our ancestors stood in Safed and Masada, connect with our Reform brothers and sisters at Kibbutz Yahel and Lotan and learn what ecological marvels they’re creating there. And if you’ve been to Israel before, now is still the time to go: we’ll meet settlers and Palestinians, study with Rabbis for Human Rights and work the looms with Yad L’khasish, lifeline for the old. Over 10 days in June we’ll marvel at this country and all its wonders.  We’ll offer words of prayer and have challenging and meaningful experiences. And yes, there will be shopping.
If you have children, don’t leave them behind!  This is a trip for all ages. And if you’re travelling without children, don’t worry: There will be special educators and guides with us to create and lead kid-friendly programs separate from the adults.
I could spend all night talking about this trip, but I’d rather you came to a special parlor meeting here at the Temple on November 15th, where you’ll have a chance to see the itinerary, learn about costs and the trip, and meet people from Ayelet the tour company we’ll be working with.
Most importantly, I want you to come with me. To see Israel as you’ve never seen her before. Not only for your own spiritual wellbeing, not only for your own growth and understanding of Israel; but so that you and I can advocate for Israel better. So that when we return from the Holy Land, we can respond to questions as banal as that minister’s, so that we can speak to our congressional leaders with authority, so that when something happens, we aren’t thinking about abstract ideas, we will have real places in our hearts and our minds.
So, let us support AIPAC, and go to their advocacy program in March (you will see the fliers for that program on your seats or, will be handed a brochure on your way out). Let’s fill out every ARZA petition ever and make sure to commit ourselves to the Progressive vision of an Israel strong enough to be the kind of country it wants to be. Let’s buy Israel bonds—and ushers will be handing out Israel bonds brochures as you leave and I will tell you, you are not permitted to leave this place without one! But most importantly, let’s go to Israel and help speed redemption: for our people, for our children, for our grandchildren, so that they will only ever know a world where Israel is strong, the Jewish people secure, and they can cry out for their mamas without fear. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: Empowered Judaism

WSince the beginning of Judaism, there have been those prognosticators, philosophers and agitators who have written about how the official community isn't working, and something radical is needed. From the book of Jubilees to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, to Abraham Geiger and David Einhorn in the 19th century, to Arthur Waskow and Art Green more recently, there have been no shortage of folks with prescriptions for how we can reinvigorate, revitalize, re-imagine or reinvent Judaism. Some, like Green, are quite convincing in their efforts. Some, like the book of Jubiliees of antiquity, don't make the final cut. Some are just trying to sell you something

I picked up Empowered Judaism,  expecting it to be along these lines. Written by Elie Kaufner (RKs represent!), it describes the rise and development of the Independent Minyan phenomenon, how it is both similar and different from the chavurah movement of the 60s, and what it offers to the rest of "organizational" Judaism as a whole. In other words, I'm waiting for them to sell me something; to shout from the mountains "this is the way Judaism of the 58th century must be done!" 

Interestingly, it doesn't do that. Kaufner, himself now a rabbi, specifically does not offer independent minyans as a salve or solution to all the problems of North American synagogue life. In fact, he goes out of his way to discuss those ways that synagogues are better institutions than independent minyanim: more responsive to families with children, built-in pastoral care and support networks, more stability (though he later discusses instability as a virtue). Rather, he suggests that we may be addressing the wrong problem. That is, we're spending most of our time worried about survival, when we should be talking about meaning. 

Minyanim, as many of us know, grew out of a generation that had done 'everything right' Jewishly: they went to summer camps, Israel programs, and attended day schools as kids; later they participated in college-level leadership programs. Steven Cohen, in his landmark article "A Tale of Two Jewries" (pdf) describes how this generation is (in part) the most Jewishly well educated in North American history. In addition, this generation (not just the Jews, but in general) are more transient, tending to put off marriage and children until later in life, and tend to stay in urban areas a lot longer. As a result, there wasn't an institution that served their needs: folks in their 20s and 30s (and 40s) who knew how to daven and lein Torah, and give a d'var torah, were drawn to traditional modalities of worship, but were interested in egalitarian participation and leadership, weren't looking for education for their kids, were in "the city" (or 'downtown'), and hadn't put down roots yet. A challenging group indeed! so, they set out to create a community for themselves: 
Its goal, he explains, is "to build a prayer community that speaks to each of its members' spiritual longings, gives participants a sense of community and belonging, and empowers them to find in Judaism a deep sense of meaning and purpose that infuses every corner of their lives."

While there is tremendous freedom to start from scratch, there are also tremendous challenges. No building. No money. No lay-leadership. No clergy. The question did not focus primarily on dealing with logistics however. The question became, "How can we educate and empower a generation of Jews to take hold of their tradition? Can we shift from a mentality of survival to one of meaning? How will we recognize and meet the overwhelming demand for an engaged Jewish life? Can we imagine a new Jewish world?"

It is those two words: empowerment and engagement that then become the bywords of the movement, and the overriding goal that fueled all the decisions that were made at Kehilat Hadar (the minyan Kaufner and his friends founded in New York City), be it leadership (keep an eye out for those who show up early and help; gradually give them more responsibility, but keep ultimate responsibility with a small handful), fundraising (or lack thereof; they pride themselves on a 'suggested donation' and 'pay as you go' ethos, and having a lack of 'machers', which works for transitory folks), service leading (start on time, no change to the liturgy, anyone with skill can lead), to even simple things like arranging the room (rows not circle: looking at others can be intimidating) or communicating programs (email and website only; share what other local communities are offering) and mistakes (unpacking the previous week thoughtfully; being willing to dump a program if it's unsuccessful but also learn from it).  

From here Kaufner is able to share what elements he thinks we can take away from the experience. Primarily, it's about inspired worship and study, and creating more spiritually fulfilling experiences. "Because this generation does not join out of guilt or institutional obligation, but out of a search for meaning, then if the meaning is absent, some will not join at all." How do we achieve that kind of meaning? Let people own the experience, and let them learn. Create more opportunities for learning; Kaufner talks about 15 minute sessions on new melodies or how to lead the service, but also more serious text study, arguing that the mainstream movements' rabbis have ceded serious study to the academies, ending up as 'sacred social workers'. Don't be focused on the particularities of a denomination, and don't treat 'capturing' this demographic as a zero-sum game: 

Loyalty to institutions is not a given. The minyanim were founded by a group of people living a generation after Watergate. They have no loyalty to an institution simply because it is an institution. This is part of the misunderstanding in the denominational challenge to independent minyanim. Denominational loyalists are confounded when graduates of denominational institutions "spurn" a denominational synagogue in favor of a minyan (assuming for a moment that the choice is zero-sum, which I doubt it is in reality). According to the minyan study, most founders were never loyal to the denomination-they liked (or disliked) each discrete experience without signing on to a larger movement loyalty statement.

And don't be afraid to challenge people:

Among American Jews, there is a significant demand for meaningful, engaged Jewish life. There is a temptation to assume that Jews-especially young adults-are only interested in surface-level engagement with Jewish culture: jokes, bagels, singles events. Anything challenging, deep, or smacking of religion might scare people away. This is simply not the case. Jews are in search of meaning and engagement, and they are interested in the wisdom of their own heritage. They may not find that engagement in existing institutions, but that does not mean they aren't looking for it. They are looking for more than a class; they want to build real community. They want substance, and they want the skills to own their Jewish lives.

(A great example of this, by the way, is the gravitation of post-college educated kids going to PARDES, Hartman, HUC's Beit Midrash or one of the other egalitarian, non-clergy oriented yeshivot in Jerusalem).

As you might imagine, reading this book (especially as a fellow Gen Xer) is exhilarating, especially because Kaufner accentuates the positive--about synagogues, chavurot, and minyanim--at least for the most part. There are some moments of whinging; a certain generational divide (though I suspect it's as much philosophical as generational). While he avoids the triumphalism that often accompanies a new movement, three articles written by leaders of other minyanim don't quite have the same sensitivity (or organization). And the book ends rather suddenly (I noticed this with Art Green's "Radical Judaism" as well) before going into an excellent appendix that's really an example of the kind of robust text study he suggests. I'm not sure why that is, but it feels rather anticlimactic, like he was afraid to push too hard somehow?

Finally, while I find much of the argument compelling (the argument for rows of chairs rather than 'in the round' was a new one and convinced me), a lot of it isn't either rocket science or new. Good congregations have always figured out how to balance their leadership between those with wealth, wisdom and work. The synagogues I've served have used similar methods of evaluating potential leaders, giving them gradually more responsibility. And I worry that, while there are many Jews who are interested in meaningful study, it's not necessarily universal as a goal. A congregant reminded me this summer (after leading an excellent experimental Torah study) that many people are terrified of text (especially traditional study) and find it alien and discouraging. That doesn't make them lesser Jews (nor do I think Kaufner would argue that), but it means they need to experience Torah in a different way: pairing them off in 'chevruta' and putting a Vilna Shas in their hands isn't going to lead them to meaningful encounters with Judaism, but send them screaming.

Minor complaints. In a world full of venture philanthropists, organizational and communal leaders all looking for the 'silver bullet' or 'next big thing' (and consultants and educators willing to suggest they have the answer), it's refreshing to read someone who admits that there is no magic 'one-size-fits-all' solution: just meaningful engagement, inspirational worship, and compelling Torah. All the rest is commentary; time to study.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Liberal Whateverism?

It's articles like this that make me wince at the direction of liberal religiosity, as well as the (very well meaning) role of 'bad' interfaith dialogue (that is, the kind of milquetoast, don't challenge each other, politically correct stuff that too often substitutes for the real thing). Real Pluralism happens when we don't just tolerate each other, nor minimize each other by saying 'it's all the same thing', but holds up and honors those differences and recognizes that those different paths are all sacred.

There was a time in American culture, only a few generations ago, when religious differences were major. Baptists were not Methodists, and both were definitely not Presbyterians. Catholics were absolutely not Protestant, and Protestants doubted that Catholics were even Christians. Jews and Mormons were whole other species. Non-religious Americans were beyond the pale. And Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus were heathen living in faraway places. The problem with that world, we now see, was the destructive bigotry, misunderstanding, conflict and sometimes hatred that went with it. Let us call that world one of sectarian conflict.
We have come in America today to a very different world, which we might call liberal whateverism. This outlook reacts against sectarian conflict by dramatically discounting the claims of religion. The more aggressive side of this view asserts that religion per se is pernicious and should be eliminated or radically privatized. The more accommodating side says religion is fine as a personal lifestyle commodity, but that religious inclinations are ultimately arbitrary and should not be taken too seriously.
I have been studying the lives of American teenagers and emerging adults for the past decade. In our recently published book, "Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood," my co-authors and I describe the larger world in which liberal whateverism makes sense. Many emerging adults have few considered moral bearings, are devoted to mass consumerism, routinely become intoxicated and engage in casual sexual hook-ups, are civically and politically uninformed and alienated. Our story is not a tirade against "kids these days." It is about wider, deeper problems in American society and culture -- concerns that should trouble liberals and conservatives -- which show up in disquieting ways in the lives of youth.
Liberal whateverism was obvious among most of the emerging adults we studied. About 10 percent were militantly atheistic. But the vast majority opted for the more accommodating "whatever" default. Anyone could take religion or leave it. It was an individual "opinion" that didn't matter much.
Most interesting was the belief of a significant minority in "karma." This meant to them simply the idea that, in some mysterious way, good and bad people would get what they deserve in this life. Few emerging adults know anything about the religious traditions that seriously teach karma. "Karma" is simply a reminder that they should try to do the right thing and a substitute for anger or revenge against bad people by believing they will soon get their comeuppance. Karma is a way to try to sustain justice in our moral universe without having to appeal to a personal God or a real judgment day.
As a sociologist, I view this belief in karma as socially functional and psychologically therapeutic. But I doubt it works over time. Good and bad people do not always get what they deserve. Sometimes the wicked prosper and horrible things happen to good people. Without a metaphysical view explaining the reality and power of karma, belief in its mysterious capacity to achieve this-worldly justice can easily slide into cynicism. And from most faith perspectives, pop karma is shallow, naïve and perhaps even disrespectful to the religious traditions which teach it. Claiming it as many emerging adults do is somehow like stealing candy from the Bhagavad Gita giftshop.
Is there not a better way for all of us to take religion more seriously without descending into sectarian conflict? That is one of the most important questions of our day.
I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square -- while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that "all religions are ultimately the same." That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private "opinions." It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime's too-easy blanket affirmations of "tolerance" of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.
We as a society and a culture have much to learn about ourselves from teenagers and emerging adults, both good and bad. One of those things, I believe, is the need to get beyond not only sectarian conflict but also liberal whateverism, to a more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism.

"What did the Rabbi say?!"

Recently, someone posted a comment to a blog post I wrote suggesting that the topic was inappropriate subject matter for a rabbi to post about in public.

I don’t know why this reaction surprises me, but it always does. Truthfully, there are actually very few things that are, technically, inappropriate for a rabbi (or any clergy) to comment on in the public sphere. We are not permitted to endorse political candidates (well, unless we want our congregations’ non-profit tax statuses revoked). We are not permitted to share anything told to us in confidence, in deference to the “priest-parishioner’ relationship. And Jewish tradition would suggest that lashon harah—gossip or slander; that is, speaking about another person, rather than of my own experience—is beneath the dignity of any Jew (or human being for that matter).

But that’s about it. As a rabbi, I have freedom of the pulpit; that is to say, the congregation, when it calls me (hires me), understands that I will speak my mind from that pulpit. That’s the job, and that doesn’t mean I’m going to shy away from controversy. Nor does it mean that the congregation may respond indelicately to that controversy; David Einhorn was run out of antebellum Baltimore due to his anti-slavery sermons is just one classic example. And, as a rabbi, I know that making controversial statements runs me the risk of the ba’al habatim of the congregation asking me to go with God...somewhere else. But in theory, a rabbi and his congregation should have the kind of relationship that is apolitical. In other words, I shouldn’t be editing my sermons (or articles, or blogs, or teaching materials) because I’m worried about what others will think of me. But, if I’m going to say something controversial, then it should a) be something I have direct experience of (i.e. not lashon hara) and b) something I believe quite strongly and willing to stand behind, something I’m passionate about, even though the people in my congregation may reject or challenge my opinion.

And, really, isn’t that why rabbis share challenging, controversial things? To get our congregants to think, to move them, to have them respond, perhaps even angrily. Sure, I could get up there and give a variation on ‘it’s good to be nice and nice to be good,’ again and again and again, and I’d get a ‘nice sermon, rabbi’ from folks who didn’t even hear what I was saying (and truth be told, I wouldn’t be listening either). This is not to say that sermons should be written for shock value, but a good teacher challenges his or her students and encourages them to push back. Torah study—REAL Torah study—isn’t [just] about finding ways to read our own values in the text. It’s about wrestling with the sacred in the text and in the person with whom I’m studying. That’s not going to happen if the rabbi is offering trite aphorisms or harmless, safe, messages about whatever. The trick, then, is to provide a safe space for both rabbi and laypeople to explore and challenge each other. I think often the problem is that communities (and rabbis) don’t know how to do that. Folks who are cowed by the image of their rabbi are going to sit on their hands and stew (or worse, quit) rather than engage in meaningful conversation, because they don’t know how to approach,  (I’m endlessly amazed by folks who in one moment call me ‘approachable’ and in a later conversation say, ‘but you’re the RABBI!’) . And rabbis grow fearful about losing their jobs when board members start complaining, especially when a member quits (“he’s hurting the bottom line!”).

So, you don’t like what I said? You have a different opinion or world view? Good: challenge me! Disagree with me! Not disrespectfully (I would never disrespect YOU after all); don’t insult me or my intelligence. Don’t be judgmental, don't be personal. But challenge me, push back, talk about your experience in contradiction to my own, ask for clarification, for refinement, read the text differently from me, with me: teach me something. I’ll be happy to do the same for you (again, in a respectful, thoughtful way).We may not change each others’ opinions, but we will understand each other that much better, and we'll create space for one another. Just don’t tell me that it’s inappropriate for me to talk.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Appearances aren't always reality

Stumbled upon this interview with Rabbi Rick Jacobs from three years ago, about CHABAD and how we as Reform Jews should respond to them. (for those who don't know, CHABAD, or the Lubuvitcher movement, is a Chasidic, what is often called "Ultra-Orthodox" movement devoted to what we could call today 'Outreach'; that is, creating programming to reach as many Jews as possible and get them to join their movement, for the purpose of bringing about the time of the Messiah).

I have always had a problem with CHABAD, which tends to take people by surprise. After all, I've studied Chasidut and use a lot of Chasidic material in my own teaching and spiritual practice. And yet I have this really visceral response to them as an organization. Because of that really energetic (okay, angry) response, I don't do a very good job of explaining my position. It's not because of their practices or beliefs--I've studied that Tanya (the spiritual writings of their founder, Shneur Zalman of Liadi), and have learned tremendously from their outreach approach. My problem with them isn't even philosophical; while I strongly believe in a Judaism that is egalitarian and recognizes the holiness of every individual (Jewish and non-), I recognize their right as a group to practice a different Judaism, and no matter how much I may disagree with them on those issues, there is a place in the market of ideas for them to sell their wares. I don't even care that they accuse Reform of being inauthentic; it wouldn't be the first time, after all. And, anyone who has read a lousy self-help book will tell you that someone else cannot make me feel anything: if, at the end of the day, I regard my practice as inauthentic or irrelevant, it is because I believe it to be so, because of my doubts and insecurities.

And, in truth, CHABAD offers (like any other movement) an opportunity for spiritual searching and exploration. Not better or worse than any other (though perhaps with better marketing): but a different approach that can be appealing for some (or just appealing in one moment).

My issue with them has always been this profound sense that they're not being honest, either within their movement or with those they encounter. I have seen Chabad community centers (really, synagogues, but call them what you will) use other congregations' directories to recruit members and donors, advertise themselves as egalitarian (!), refuse to participate in community institutions (with two exceptions: a) there's money involved and b) they think they can show up others in the community in some way). Others smarter than me have written and commented that this emerges from their sense of mission--only they have the truth (look to their name: CHABAD is an acronym for Chochma, Bina v'Da'at--Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge) and the means to bring about mashiachtzeit (the Messianic Age), so why should they partner with others unless it's to their advantage? Better to get everyone to come to their side of the table. And if they have to break a few congregations and JCCs and Hillels along the way, so be it. Nothing personal: just business.

And really, my problem isn't even their 'business model' (pardon the expression), though I really don't like that 'winner take all' approach. It's that we buy into it. How many of us (myself included) shry gavult over slick marketing materials, over super-attentive rabbis saying slick things? How many of us complain about tactics? How much energy have I spent as a rabbi agonizing over 'how to get CHABAD'?

 Years ago I remember being in a meeting with my colleagues and laypeople and saying that the best response was to create a superior product. I don't believe that anymore; Judaism can't be a zero-sum game (thanks to Donniel Hartman for teaching me that one--at the CCAR conference in Atlanta in 2007). And it can't be about mere survival: of the People, of the State, of individual institutions. At the end of the day, it's about survival of an idea, and about believing in that idea, being passionate over that idea, so much so that we want to share it with others. We spend too much time looking at the wrong data: we look at membership numbers, at attendance at programs, because those are easy metrics. But at the end of the day, Reform needs to be more about what we believe than how many of us there are in North America.

Rick ends the interview with the following exchange:

As a Reform rabbi, I think that their role ought to be as one of the spiritual paths within Jewish life. A passionate, committed, very authentic path, but one of the paths and not the path, not a hierarchically overarching path making others seem less authentic or less serious.I was in midtown Manhattan, and I'm walking down the street and this wonderful friendly warm Chabadnik stops me and says, 'Are you Jewish?' I'm walking along, I'm wearing a grey suit. I don't know, maybe I have curly Jewish hair. I said, 'Yes, are you?' And he looked at me and started to laugh and he pointed to his tzit tzit and to his beard. I said, 'You know, appearances are not always reality.'

 I truly believe we are most successful when what we appear to be is what we truly are: that there is no difference between the outside and the inside, that we believe in our own authenticity as Jews providing meaningful, spiritual Jewish encounters: in Torah, in social justice, in worship, in life cycle and community, experiences that are welcoming, that are open, non-judgmental, and egalitarian. As Rick says, we didn't become the largest movement in America by provided a watered-down product, and CHABAD doesn't have the market share of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. We offer something that resonates deeply with people, and I'm always going to celebrate that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If It Feels Right -

If It Feels Right -

"Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called “The Death of Character.” Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described."

So...thoughts? Is relativism so ascendant that we can no longer speak of shared morality, or self-evident truths?

'via Blog this'

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Blog for September 11th

We had a great first day of religious school today. There was tremendous energy and joy at being together. Kids who hadn't seen each other all summer were running up and hugging each other. New families were making connections with long-time congregants. Confirmation was amazing. The opening picnic was well attended and kids were having a great time. Volunteers were welcoming people, working in the garden, sharing food and laughter with each other. It was Beth Emeth doing what it does best: being a warm, dynamic, holy community.

I say all of that because of the date. Today is not any given Sunday; it is a day that has become sacred and terrible. For some it is a transformative day, a memorial day, a day to justify one or another set of political beliefs. But it's also a day full of people being people, full of people loving each other.

Rabbi David Levinsky and I were talking about how rarely we find, even 10 years later, a 9/11 commemoration or response that stirs our heart, that doesn't resolve itself in pablum, in treacle, in maudlin words that give neither comfort nor challenge us meaningfully. Scott Simon, in a blog this past week, probably comes close (thanks to Rachael Bregman for sharing it with me). But I think for some, it is still too raw, too soon. And for others, well, how can you watch children playing and learning and not think the world full of blessing? The desire to put it in the past is strong.

In that blog post by Simon, he shared a poem by WH Auden, written when World War II broke out. In some ways, it speaks better to that moment than anything written as a direct response. So I (RE)share it with you in the hopes that it brings meaning.

I sit in one of the divesOn Fifty-second StreetUncertain and afraidAs the clever hopes expireOf a low dishonest decade:Waves of anger and fearCirculate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,Obsessing our private lives;The unmentionable odour of deathOffends the September night. Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offenceFrom Luther until nowThat has driven a culture mad,Find what occurred at Linz,What huge imago madeA psychopathic god:I and the public knowWhat all schoolchildren learn,Those to whom evil is doneDo evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knewAll that a speech can sayAbout Democracy,And what dictators do,The elderly rubbish they talkTo an apathetic grave;Analysed all in his book,The enlightenment driven away,The habit-forming pain,Mismanagement and grief:We must suffer them all again. Into this neutral airWhere blind skyscrapers useTheir full height to proclaimThe strength of Collective Man,Each language pours its vainCompetitive excuse:But who can live for longIn an euphoric dream;Out of the mirror they stare,Imperialism's faceAnd the international wrong. Faces along the barCling to their average day:The lights must never go out,The music must always play,All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assumeThe furniture of home;Lest we should see where we are,Lost in a haunted wood,Children afraid of the nightWho have never been happy or good. The windiest militant trashImportant Persons shoutIs not so crude as our wish:What mad Nijinsky wroteAbout DiaghilevIs true of the normal heart;For the error bred in the boneOf each woman and each manCraves what it cannot have,Not universal loveBut to be loved alone. From the conservative darkInto the ethical lifeThe dense commuters come,Repeating their morning vow;"I will be true to the wife,I'll concentrate more on my work,"And helpless governors wakeTo resume their compulsory game:Who can release them now,Who can reach the deaf,Who can speak for the dumb? All I have is a voiceTo undo the folded lie,The romantic lie in the brainOf the sensual man-in-the-streetAnd the lie of AuthorityWhose buildings grope the sky:There is no such thing as the StateAnd no one exists alone;Hunger allows no choiceTo the citizen or the police;We must love one another or die. Defenceless under the nightOur world in stupor lies;Yet, dotted everywhere,Ironic points of lightFlash out wherever the JustExchange their messages:May I, composed like themOf Eros and of dust,Beleaguered by the sameNegation and despair,Show an affirming flame.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mazal tov to Jonathan Blake: incoming Senior of WRT

So I'm going to get sappy here; doesn't happen often (or does it?), so bear with me.

I've known Jonathan Blake since 2000, when Marisa and I first arrived in Cincinnati to start my 2nd year of rabbinical school, and Jonathan was completing his 5th year. We met Kelly around the same time; she was beginning her serious exploration of Judaism after singing in Bonia Shur's choir for some time. The two of them became our greatest mentors, wonderful friends, and deep inspirations. Over the years we've gotten to know them and their families, keeping in touch and visiting when Jonathan was the associate rabbi in Providence, and grabbing drinks or meals together at conference. Jonathan is one of the smartest, most capable and thoughtful rabbis I know; other than my dad, he was the only rabbi in the field I spoke to seriously about my placement prospects my ordination year. And Kelly is simultaneously the nicest and most talented and most honest and authentic person (rare capabilities!). So it was no surprise to me that he went to Westchester Reform (one of the most dynamic and engaging congregations in the US) in 2003 to be their associate rabbi, and even less of a surprise when they named him senior-elect this week. Surely, he will  not be Rick Jacobs (who could be?), but he will be Jonathan--someone who knows the tradition intimately, who engages in worship and music with great joy, who has a wicked sense of humor (as we say in New England), who takes people and their neshamot seriously, and knows how to listen as well as inspire. So Kol Hakavod Jonathan and Kelly! May this year bring you meaningful challenges and successes that lead toward growth, renewal and joy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thinking about the HiHos

So, here's a question that is TOTALLY not meant to be confrontational nor judgmental, but I want to explore this idea at RH and perhaps you could help me:

1. Are you going to High Holiday services this year
2. if so, why?
3. what are your hopes and expectations? What are you least expecting to happen?
4. what is your favorite (or most meaningful) aspect? Least meaningful?

Yes, I'm thinking about writing a high holidays sermon about why people come to the high holidays. My tautology is tautological. However, there is method to my madness, IF I can write it in a way that is challenging without being just insulting.

So, please answer! It'll be a big help! THANK YOU!

(this is expanded from my post to LinkedIn and Facebook, so if you answered there, thanks! Feel free to repost but no worries if you don't!)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kudos to a bar mitzvah kid

Great (but exhausting) Shabbat today. Walked to synagogue out of necessity (my car's in the shop) and was reminded of how much I love (and miss) walking to shul on Shabbes. The Bar Mitzvah did a great job, but more than that, he brought his own musical ability (he plays rock guitar in a band) and included the song "With My Own Two Hands" in his D'var Torah. Very applicable to this past week's parasha and a wonderful tikkun--by making sacred a secular song (though it really lends itself well).