Friday, August 31, 2012

#BlogElul Day 13: Excuses and The Binding of Isaac

Shabbat Shalom friends. You'll find my sermon anticipating Rosh Hashanah, which deals with the Akedah and the stories we tell ourselves as we sacrifice our children. 

The father loves his son. He is the child of his old age, the one promised to him by the God he followed to a strange land, the one who gave his wife laughter, the one who will carry on the promise given by that God he cannot see but whose name he called out. The father loves his son, and now that same God who has promised that his progeny will be as the stars in the sky, commands him to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his child in some distant land. There is no explanation, no qualification: only the commandment to kill his beloved, his precious one. The father loves his son, He is the child of his old age, the one promised him by his God; but still, he saddles up his donkey for the journey ahead. Every Rosh Hashanah we read a tale that is every parent’s nightmare: Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. Some say it is a story of faith, a test of Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s commands and his ability to trust God’s intentions. And certainly this is how it has been taught. In Ma’asei Avraham Avinu, or “The Doings of Abraham our Father”, the rabbis explore the various midrashim surrounding the so-called 10 trials of Abraham, culminating with the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. Each one depicts a man committed to his belief regardless of the consequences, at times braving death and destruction but each time protected by God. Likewise, the midrash even presents Isaac as being a willing participant in the binding, committed to his faith as much as his father. As we might imagine, this story became a powerful metaphor for the massacres that took place throughout the middle ages, as Jewish communities throughout central Europe wrestled with whether they would have to face the same choices Abraham and Isaac faced. But we do not read the Akedat Yitzchak at Rosh Hashanah exclusively as a story of near-martyrdom. It is a story of redemption and remembrance. Our rabbis teach: When God stops Abraham’s hand and provides him a substitute in the form of a ram, Abraham elicits a promise of God: that every year, when the sound of the ram’s horn heard, the same ram caught in the thicket and sacrificed in place of his son, God will remember Abraham’s willingness to obey without question, will hear the prayers of Abraham’s children, our prayers, and redeem us. The shofar, and the story of its origin, proclaim: remember our ancestors, remember their zechut, their merit, and whatever our faults or failings, whatever our human frailties, preserve and forgive us for their sake. That is a comfort for us. And yet, and yet, this story is not one of comfort. Quite the opposite: the Akedah is a mirror, an unsettling reflection of our willingness to seek comfort—in religion, in easy rituals and easy answers, in superficial communication. How can we read this text without reflecting on how we sacrifice our own sons and daughters: sacrificed not to God but our expectations. Sacrificed not for holiness, but for competition, for prestige, for acclimation. Our children are offered up on foreign altars of ambition and we over over them, pressure cook them, that they may have the ‘right’ experiences, the ‘right’ backgrounds. To say nothing for the children who toil that we may have our coffee and chocolate and tea, the children working in horrific conditions the world over, the children whose parents are taken away from them that those parents may provide for our wants and needs. As Leonard Cohen sang: You who build these altars nowTo sacrifice these children,You must not do it anymore.A scheme is not a visionAnd you never have been temptedBy a demon or a god.You who stand above them now…You were not there before.When I lay upon a mountainAnd my father’s hand was tremblingWith the beauty of the word. So on top of all these meanings, the Akedah is about power. Our power over our children, and God’s power over us. It is a reminder that, despite our best efforts and all our energies, we are not in control over our own lives. The Akedah stands to remind us of our limits, re reassert that we are not God, merely caretakers of God’s gifts. And so, as we anticipate Yom HaZikaron, this day of remembrance, as we hear the Akedah, as we hear the sound of the shofar, we remember of our spiritual ancestors, and we pray for redemption: from our sins, from our failings, from our anxieties, from our reaches and overreaches for power. A redemption that comes not on our behalf, not on our merits, but the merits of our ancestors and our children. As it is written: O righteous one, do us this grace! You promised Abraham mercy for our fathers. Let then their merit stand as our witness…break the yoke and snap the bands of the…flock that yearns toward Thee.” Amen. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

#BlogElul Day 12: Image

And who best to contemplate the issue than Art Green?

If the Maimonidean seeks to purify one's thinking about God by questioning and progressively removing all anthropomorphic and anthropopathic images, the Kabbalist seeks to mentally flood the reader with an overwhelming excess of images, leading to the conclusion that the divine reality must ultimately transcend them all. Virtually everything, almost any noun encountered in Scripture and any object within the natural realm, becomes an image term that leads back to contemplation of some aspect of God. If the same element or stage of self-revelation within the Godhead may be called by a diverse set of names (the third sefirah, for example, is “mother,” “womb,” “jubilee,” “fountain,” “repentance,” “upper Eden,” “heart,” “understanding,” “palace,” and a host more), it becomes clear that all of these are somehow pointing beyond themselves and that no single name, image, or symbol fully expresses just what this sefirah (or symbol cluster) is. “You are the One who fills all names,” as the Tiqquney Zohar famously expresses it, “but You Yourself have no specific name.”

Green, Arthur (2010-02-18). Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (The Franz Rosenzweig Lecture Series) (p. 64). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#BlogElul Day 11: Change

And now, a reminder from our liturgy. Change doesn't only happen at the High Holidays, you know.

THIS IS AN HOUR of change.
Within it we stand uncertain on the border of light.
Shall we draw back or cross over?
Where shall our hearts turn?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,
or cross over?
This is the hour of change, and within it,
we stand quietly
on the border of light.
What lies before us?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,
or cross over?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

#BlogElul day 10: Memory

I thought about giving a sermon teaser, but instead, here's a story from Rabbi Shmuel Betzalel Sheftel, known as Rashbatz (circa 1829–1905) as told by Yossy Gordon: 
 In a small town in Russia lived a porter who made his living by transporting people and packages to and from the train station. The porter had a young son who assisted him with his work. Every morning the two would awaken very early, recite their morning prayers, eat breakfast, prepare the horse and wagon, and hit the road. During the summer months, when the sun often rose as early as 3:00 AM, the porter and his son awoke even earlier. 
A summer fast day arrived on the Jewish calendar. The porter roused his son at the usual time, and off to the synagogue they went. When they had finished praying, the porter informed his son that today there would be no eating due to the fast.
The day wore on. The son grew hungrier and hungrier. He began to ask his father incessantly when they would finally eat. Finally, the day ended and his hunger was satisfied. 
The following morning, the boy refused to budge when his father tried to wake him. With an air of indignation the boy told his father, “I do not want to get up, and I do not want to work. I am afraid that you will not let me eat anything today either!”
“Ah, my son, have no fear,” replied the porter. “Today is not yesterday.”
Whenever Rashbatz told this story, he would tap his listener on the shoulder, as if to exclaim, “Get up! Get up! Today is not yesterday!”

Monday, August 27, 2012

#BlogElul Day 9: Blessings and more Heschel

We tend not to talk so much of Blessings, except in the most abstract sense; what a 'blessing' it is to succeed or fail at something, to be surrounded by friends, etc. This is different from the idea than the words we pronounce as blessings, which are a kind of 'Thank You', but also an acknowledgement of the sanctity of a thing (or a time, or person) and how we are changed by the opportunity for blessing. Blessings as speech acts are powerful, but we forget that power; as Michael Marmur pointed out to us a long time ago (I really remember his sermons!), we say 'bless you' mostly when people sneeze! I have always loved when people respond to questions about how they're doing, how their day is or the like with "God Bless" or "Baruch Hashem", and continue to respond in the same fashion most of the time. But we must also remember that those same blessings, those same speech acts can be turned to curses. 

So with that, the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who speaks more eloquently on the subject:
Moreover, words must not be said for the sake of stiffening the mind, of tightening the heart. They must open the mind and untie the heart. A word may be either a blessing or a misfortune. As a blessing it is the insight of a people in the form of a sound, a store of meaning accumulated throughout the ages. As a misfortune it is a substitute for insight, a pretext or a cliché. To those who remember, many of the words in the prayerbook are still warm with the glow of our fathers’ devotion. Such Jews we must aspire to recall. While those who have no such memory we must teach how to sense the spiritual life that pulsates through the throbbing words.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1997-05-16). Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays (p. 117). Macmillan. Kindle Edition. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

#BlogElul day 8: Prayer

The following is a reprint of an article I shared in the Beth Emeth Orbit in February 2010, explaining my own worship experience. 

Some students of the Baal Shem Tov came to him one day with a question. "Every year we travel here to learn from you. Nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?"

The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?"

"Yes!" The hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them."

"Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds." The Baal Shem Tov smiled. "If he has an answer, he is a fake."

One of the wonderful, joyous things about being Jewish is there is no one ‘right’ way. There are mitzvoth, there are traditions that are so weighty and meaningful they might as well be mitzvoth, and there are observances that are purely stylistic or aesthetic in nature, that we do as Jews simply for the joy of it.

So it is with movement, the way we position our bodies during prayer. Jewish prayer is not for standing (or sitting) still! We bow at the knee to show homage to the One God; we cover our eyes at the sh’ma to concentrate on the words; we take three steps forward and back at the beginning of the Amidah to approach God correctly; we rise on our tiptoes at the kedusha to try to fly like angels as we pronounce God’s holiness.

I’ve always been a mover-call it shuckling, call it dancing, call it davening, call it just a failure of standing still-the rhythms and cadence of the service flow through me. Body movement helps me stay focused on the prayers I utter; swaying to the music helps me stay attuned to my kavannah, my intention as I pray and lead the prayers. The movement centers me the way achieving a yoga position helps someone find his chakra or the way the movements of tai chi chu’an slow the person down to achieve real awareness of her chi. Movement in prayer is meditation, it is focus and attentiveness, it is fun. 
Of course, like yoga or tai chi, many of the movements are choreographed, specified for a reason. There is a reason that at times we rise, bow, take three steps back and forward, go on our tiptoes, beat our chests, and moonwalk (just kidding about the last one). For some of us, those movements are so rooted in our experience they’re second nature, though we may not know their origins; for others they appear foreign and mysterious. Over the last year I’ve had people ask me about the movements, either privately or right before or after services, and some requests to discuss those movements during the service, but I’ve been loath to do so; I fear that, interrupting the flow of worship, I turn it into a seminar or worse, an exhibition rather than an opportunity for prayer. 
However, after further requests and discussions, and with our adoption of our new prayerbook, I’ve seen the wisdom in taking some time during services and, in lieu of a sermon, speaking during the service itself of the prayers and movements, explaining their origins and purpose in a (hopefully) prayerful fashion.

The point is not to force anyone to do what is uncomfortable or meaningless for them; quite the contrary. These movements are opportunities for us as a congregation and as individuals to find our own rhythm, our own sense of prayerfulness, and an acknowledgement that each of us must find our place in our spiritual home. For some, movement conveys holiness and ruach. For others, complete stillness and silence allows for real spirituality. For yet others, that sense of kedusha comes not from prayer but from study, or meaningful social justice work, experiencing some piece of Jewish art or literature or culture, or just knowing that she is surrounded by others who, figuratively speaking, also stood at Sinai. We are at our best when we embrace all of these ways of breathing in God’s Oneness, when we stop trying to separate dancer from dance and appreciate the intention, the connection, and the joy.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

#BlogElul Day 7: Shofar

A story: when I was a student, one High Holidays at my pulpit in Muncie IN, the ba'al T'kiah, the shofar blower for the congregation, gave me a head's up. A surgeon (and someone who rarely attended shul), he was on call for Rosh Hashanah that year, and couldn't get out of it. I reminded him that pikuach nefesh--the saving of a life--took precedence, and both I and the soloist were capable shofar blowers. Sure enough, he had surgery that day, early in the morning, and I prepared to sound the shofar at the appropriate time. As we reached that part of the service, the doctor arrived from surgery--still in his scrubs!--with a tallit over his shoulders and shofar in hand. He was exhausted, he was filthy, with another person's blood upon him, he was not a regular synagogue-goer; he had every excuse in the world. And he came to blow shofar for his congregation. He had to be there. 

The Shofar service, as my teacher Michael Marmur reminded us 15 (!) years ago, is made up of three parts: Zichronot, Malchuyot and Shofarot. Zichronot--invoking God's memory of our patriarchs (and matriarchs) and invoking their zechut, their merit, on our behalf. Malchuyot, a proclamation of God's majesty and sovereignty, a reminder that we are not in fact, in charge, no matter what we may think. And Shofarot: the primal sound of the Shofar hearkening to a time before time, invoking no logic or rationality, but pure Mystery, the essence of the Sacred unfiltered, shaking us, disturbing us, freeing us in that moment from what binds us. That is the power of the shofar; as Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us: not a symbol, referencing something else, but a mitzvah, an act of holiness that elevates and sanctifies our lives. 

What will you be thinking as you hear the Shofar's sound? 

Shavua Tov and #BlogElul Day 6: Faith

Posted without Comment. Shavua Tov.

Sometimes Sometimes things don't go, after all,from bad to worse. Some years, muscadelfaces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well. A people sometimes step back from war;elect an honest man; decide they care enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.Some men become what they were born for. Sometimes our best efforts do not goamiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrowthat seemed hard frozen: may it happen to you. ~ Sheenagh Pugh ~

Thursday, August 23, 2012

#BlogElul Day 5: Trust

THE CONSCIENCE of the world was destroyed by those who were wont to blame others rather than themselves. Let us remember, we revered the instincts but distrusted ideals. We labored to perfect engines and let our inner life go to wreck. We ridiculed superstition until we lost our ability to believe. We have helped to extinguish the light our fathers had kindled. We have bartered holiness for convenience, loyalty for success, love for power, wisdom for diplomas, prayer for sermon, wisdom for information, tradition for fashion.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1997-05-16). Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays (p. 211). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#BlogElul Day 4: Counting

Today was my first day back from vacation. It was also our first staff meeting of the new school year. It was also the meet & greet for my son's kindergarten class, a chance for him to meet his new teacher and students. 

It was a day of counting: enumerating all the work that has to be done, all the prep needed for the first day of school (secular and religious), all the little details that needed attention. 

It was also a day of counting breaths, recording each blessed encounter: a conversation at the gym, a chance to celebrate a birthday, a moment to marvel at how my son has grown. 

Counting is a way of keeping track of things and their values; sometimes that means finances, or tasks, or produce, or productivity. Sometimes it means ethics, memories, connection, and holiness. 

So we read Psalm 90: So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom. Or as Shaul Feinberg always translated it: Teach us to make each day count

We are coming to the end of one year: how many of your days have counted? How many of the coming days will count, will be of value to us? And what can we do fulfill those words of Scripture? 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#blogelul Day 3: Intentions

Sorry for the late post. Drove home with my family from vacation today, and, well, while my intention was to leave early and rush, we took our time this morning, got home in time for dinner, at which point I rushed out again for Theology on Tap.

So, since I'm behind the 8-ball, allow me to present this meditation on intention, and prayer, by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

"Prayer is a ladder on which our thoughts mount to God. Prayer takes our mind out of the narrowness of self-interest. Prayer clarifies our hopes and our intentions. Prayer, like a gulf stream, imparts warmth to all that is cold. Prayer is a dialogue with God. Prayer is an answer to God. Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives. Prayer is our desire to let God's will prevail in our affairs. Prayer is opening our soul to God. Prayer is our intention to make God the master of our soul. Prayer is to sense God's presence. Prayer is a gift to God. Amen." 

Monday, August 20, 2012

#Blogelul day 2: Inventory

My folks are in the process of selling my childhood home, so while on vacation I've been helping tidy up and going through boxes. Look what I found today? I think things turned out ok.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blogging Elul Day One: Return

Today begins the Blogging Elul Project as conceived by my friend and colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Elul is, of course, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and is traditionally seen as an opportunity for introspection, reflection and repentance as we prepare for the Days of Awe. The theme for our first day of Elul is "Return", usually understood in Hebrew as Teshuvah. Usually, when discussing this term, I'd be expanding on the idea of repentance, but today I want to explore it's other associated meaning, that of 'returning' to Orthodoxy through the ba'al teshuvah movement.

(Fair warning: I'm going to write some controversial things here.)

As the term implies, to be a ba'al teshuvah is to be a 'master of return'; someone who has chosen to leave behind a secular or liberal Jewish (or perhaps even halakhic Jewish) experience in order to become Orthodox, usually (and poorly termed) "Ultra" Orthodox; the term 'Return' in this case refers to the idea that Orthodoxy is the more 'authentic' or 'true' Jewish experience; the ba'al teshuvah had left the path of 'real' Judaism but now returned to the path of a "Torah True" lifestyle.

As a liberal Jew, this bothers me, but not for the reasons you might think. It's not their questioning of the authenticity of my experience; I have no question in my mind that Reform Judaism (or Conservative or Reconstructionist) is a meaningful, authentic expression of Judaism and Torah living, as true as Orthodoxy.

This summer, I've gotten increasingly upsetting questions, both through my work with Jewish Values Online and in my congregation, about the increasing stridency of Orthodoxy, especially in Israel. We are living in an era where Many leaders of "Ultra" Orthodoxy are not just questioning the authenticity of other forms of Judaism but legislating against those expressions as well. We see this when leading rabbis in the movement--Poskim--make the argument that children in secular Schools are evil, as Ovadia Yosef argued. Or when women are not only prohibited from worshiping as equals but are arrested  on a regular basis. Or when The Economist debates whether Israel is succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism (a term barely used a decade ago)--and resolves that this is likely.

Of course, Orthodoxy is a big tent--in many ways more diverse than Reform Judaism--but these strident voices are not at the periphery, but the core. And they are undermining the very heart of Judaism they say they seek to protect. Their focus on the minutia of halakhah rather than the values do more to divide us as a people than anything else on the stage. And the idea that, as North American Jews support the state of Israel and her government, we may be inadvertently supporting such intraJewish bigotry should give us pause.

So perhaps it is time to rethink what it means to be ba'al teshuvah, and we should retake the term. Not a return to Orthodoxy but a return to Torah and essential Jewish values. yes, perhaps this means we as Reform Jews should continue to explore halakhah in a way we have not chosen to do so until recently, and we should do so with more enthusiasm, but we should bring our values of egalitarianism, full equality, and social justice to that conversation. That would be a real return.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A little hiatus...

Sorry about that little hiatus. Vacation and sermon writing and...

Oh, who am I kidding? I've been cheating on my blog with Twitter and Facebook and Jewish Values Online (though to be fair, that's all I've had time for recently).

So here's my last sermon about Penn State, the IOC and the need for admonition. Expect more on the olympics at the high holidays, by the way.

This past Wednesday was an exercise in my least favorite part of parenting: discipline. We were supposed to have chicken dinner at the JCC pool. Instead we had the opposite of that. Elishai, while we were on vacation, got a little punchy, literally. After a year of communicating more and more effectively without resorting to physicality, E decided this vacation to communicate through fisticuffs. So Wednesday, after repeated smacks by him and repeated warnings by us that if he continued, we were going to pack it up, and like little bunny foo-foo, he had to get in one more bop. So, up he was scooped and home we went, with a long, firm conversation about the consequences of our actions.

To say that he was most displeased would be an understatement. Oh, did I get the sulky Kindergartener routine. And really, can you blame him? No one likes to be disciplined. No one wants to reflect on their poor decisions or bad choices, or their repercussions. No one wants to be called on their actions, whether you’re five or 50. Look at the response at Penn State to the Freeh report and the punishment meted out by the NCAA. While the new leadership has accepted the lumps and is trying to move forward, countless alumni and boosters continue to refuse to accept the truth: that there was a colossal failure of leadership leading to real harm, and that the school and especially the football program must suffer the pain of discipline. One comment I saw from a booster claimed that this was their 9/11. I don’t know what he meant by that, but it seems to me that there is a strong desire to avoid the ugly facts and portray themselves as victims instead.
I think there’s an element of that with regard to the IOC in their refusal to observe a moment of silence at the 27th summer Olympic games for the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich attacks that killed 11 Israeli athletes. Many have claimed it’s a statement of anti-Semitism, of cowing to the wishes of Arab states who don’t want to see Israel honored in any way, or a more overt anti-zionist sentiment. I think it’s just arrogance.  Jacques Rogge and his associates made a decision to not honor the memory of those killed in 1972. It was a bad decision, but they decided that admitting it was a bad decision was worse than holding the line and insisting blithely that they had too packed an opening ceremony. More to the point, to remember the 11 who died would be to also remember that their security wasn’t tight enough, that the IOC didn’t do enough to protect their athletes and an event that is supposed to bring nations together for sport. A reminder of two failures is too many. Better to skip it.

The truth is, though, most of us don’t like doing the disciplining either. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. It’s disappointing. It’s embarrassing. I listened to myself talking to my son and my inner teenager was rolling his eyes at me: “here you go, another lecture from dad.” While others may rejoice in schadenfraude, the reality is that most of us would rather not have to call people on their errors. And in this week’s portion, there’s an element of that present as well. The Book of Devarim, of Deuteronomy opens with Moses recounting the story of Israel’s liberation and wandering. He could have glossed it over, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Moses doesn’t do this, but recounts again and again Israel’s failure—with the Golden Calf, with the spies—and his own failure in the wilderness of Zin and the waters of Meribah. Much has been made of this being Moses’ last statement to Israel—more than that, this is his last opportunity to discipline his children, to hold them accountable. Indeed, the rabbis imagine this in two discreet ways. The first, Rashi (and others) describe this scene as a speech where all of Israel was present, and where Moses rebuked all of Israel, enumerating all the places God’s anger was wrought. Alternatively, Rabbi Simcha Bunem argues that Moses spoke to each person individually, according to their age, personality and level of understanding. In both cases, Moses calls Israel out, disciplining them with love and respect, but also with need. As Rabbi Pinchas Peli writes: "Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these "words" earlier, but he waited for the right moment. That is why the biblical narrative puts so much emphasis on the place and time of Moses' speech." Even Moses is reluctant to admonish his people, but criticize he must; only then may they enter the Land under Joshua’s leadership.

Proverbs  28 reminds us that  "He that rebukes another shall in the end find more favor." There is no joy in being disciplined, whether for a childish act or one of great seriousness and harm. But also, there is no joy in rebuking or correcting either, a moment that tests  the spirit of every person. But without loving discipline there can be no learning, no growth, no entering the Promised Land, and as Elishai learned Wednesday, no chicken dinner at the JCC. May we all learn to listen and learn to share, and in doing so may we do God’s will. Amen.