February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments
It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:
O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.
But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a brand-new toy by asking God. You’d have better luck asking Grandma, or saving up your allowance.
So, then, what is the purpose of prayer, if it is not to get stuff? It must have some kind of larger meaning – or else why do we engage in it?
One possible answer to this difficulty is that it is for God’s benefit. We engage in worship because God commands it. It is, after all, one of the demands placed upon us by our covenant: God commands us to make a sanctuary.
For example, we read in our portion today, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.” On the face of it, therefore, the purpose of bringing all of these gifts is to offer them to the Lord, to build a sanctuary to honor God.
Interestingly, however, some of the midrashim reject this interpretation. For example, consider this one:
“The whole paraphernalia of the Tabernacle, the candlestick, table, altar, holy things, the tent and curtains – what was their purpose? Israel addressed the Holy One Blessed be He: Lord of the universe, the kings of the heathens have their tent, table, candlestick and incense burner and such are the trappings of sovereignty; for every king has need of them. Should not then Thou which art our King, Saviour and Redeemer possess the same trappings of sovereignty, that it may become known to all the inhabitants of the world that Thou art the King?
“The Almighty answered: You who are flesh and blood have need of this, but I have no such need, since there is no eating or drinking associated with Me, and I have no need of light.” So it’s not for God after all! Why is it commanded then?
In this Midrash, God goes on to tell the Israelites that they are already worthy of divine concern due to the merit of their ancestors. God specifically cites their connection to the Avot – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We would also add the Imahot – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
But the Israelites object to God’s answer: we do not pray to them, we pray to You. In other words: even though they merit God’s attention and protection on this basis, they still have a need to engage in prayer. For example, what should they do when they need to specifically ask for something in particular? In response, God tells them, okay, fine: “make what you desire but make them as I command you… as it is stated: ‘Make Me a sanctuary…a candlestick…a table…an altar for burning incense.’”
It is like a parent saying to a child, ‘anything that you need I will give you.’ And the child responds: ‘yes, but what about the things that I want? How do I ask for things that I want?’ And the parent finds some structured way to accommodate the child’s request.
What that means, according to this Midrash, is that the sanctuary is not for the honor of God; and it is not to demonstrate the glory to God the way we might demonstrate the glory of an earthly king. Rather, it is provides a structured way to ask for things.
But now we are back to our original problem: it’s not like we can ask God for a Mercedes Benz. We don’t get what we ask for, at least not in any sort of direct, easy-to-catalogue way.
And that’s a genuine pity, of course, because there are so many things that we want, and so many things that we need. Eventually, we learn to ask for bigger things than a new bike, bigger things than a Mercedes Benz. We ask for things like health, long life, children, employment, fulfillment, happiness.
Yet we discover that these things do not come to us magically, just for the asking. It’s one of the great surprises of adulthood: after having the majority of our needs fulfilled by our parents, we venture out into the world to discover that we are not provided with this same kind of support wherever we go. Apparently the world does not owe us anything: not health, not wealth, not happiness. And that can be a rude shock when it comes. Who will take care of me? We find that we must take care of ourselves.
So, then, what are we trying to accomplish in prayer? What is the point of worship? Why do our prayers include requests for God’s response, if we don’t have magical powers over the Godhead?
One possibility is that prayer helps us sort out what we really want, what we really need. In hearing ourselves speak, we realize whether we are asking for something worthy or not. It could be that prayer is our way of coping with this most basic difficulty: an acknowledgment of our boundless need and our limited means of fulfilling that need.
For example, whenever I visit people in the hospital, I will pray with them, if they are willing. And in that prayer, I will state some of our hoped-for outcomes: real ones, like “…and may this person go home soon in good health…” as well as miraculous ones, such as “…and astound his or her doctors with the speed at which healing takes place…”
The point of this act of prayer in the hospital room is more than saying “I hope you get well soon.” It’s a nice sentiment, of course. And the point of prayer in the hospital room is more than the good cheer that comes with having a visitor. It’s a welcome sight as well, of course. But there’s more going on here than that.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Reading or studying a prayer is not the same as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God.” Prayer addresses what is transcendent.
But if you are agnostic about God or a non-believer, then the act of prayer does seem to be pointless. Why should we speak of something transcendent, when all we know is what we can sense here and now?
Yet is that really the case? I have found, in my own experience, that we really do sense more than what’s just here and now. What is that energy that fills a room and causes a crowd to cheer at once? What is that energy that fills our eyes with tears when the bride comes walking down the aisle? What is that energy that overflows our heart when we hold a new-born child? What is that energy that we feel and know when a congregation prays on our behalf?
That is the energy that we are addressing in the act of prayer. Prayer is more than merely talking to ourselves, and more than listening to ourselves talk. There is more to it than stating a wish, no matter how dearly felt it is. There is something greater at work here, in fact. In the act of prayer, we are asking that the energy that is available to us be put to work to good ends.
In other words: if you find that you really cannot grasp hold of the full concept of God – if the idea seems entirely too difficult, too fraught, too complicated – then think of it in smaller terms. Make a modest request. Ask that energy be available to you, energy to do what is right. Nothing more. No throne of glory or angels on high: just a small, modest request that you have the energy you need to do what is right.
I started this process of becoming Jewish without a belief in God and with a doubt that prayer can be worthwhile. If my own spiritual life is any indication: if you concentrate on that smaller goal, that practice will ultimately lead you to its source, to something grander and larger. Learn to focus on the energy you can discern, and you will eventually find something much greater than yourself. You are not alone in this search.
February 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
It is indeed something of a surprise that the Israelites turn to worship a golden calf so soon after receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. One has to wonder: were they not listening? Did they not hear the part about ‘no graven images’? Were they napping when God said, ‘you shall not worship any gods before Me’?
And, not surprisingly, both Moses and God get very angry in response to their misdeeds. God is the first to know, and therefore is the first to get angry. When he hears what they have done, Moses intercedes on their behalf, asking God to forgive them. He reminds God that the people had just come out of Egypt.
When they come to that line in our text, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand,” our ancient sages ask themselves, ‘why does Moses remind God of Egypt? Surely God already knew that they came up out of Egypt. To what purpose does this serve? Why would he say something that God already knows?’
And of course, the sages provide an answer. “Rabbi Huna said: It can be compared to a wise man who opened a perfumery shop for his son in a street frequented by women of ill repute.”
Rabbi Huna is giving us a parable, one that explains why the time in Egypt contributed to the Israelites’ misbehavior. In the case of the young man in a perfume shop, he writes, “The street did its work, the business also did its share; and the boy’s youth contributed its part, with the result that he fell into evil ways.”
Each of these factors contributed to the outcome: he was spending time in a place where lewd behavior was practiced, engaged in a trade that would bring him into contact with that lewd behavior, and at an age when he would be susceptible to those influences.
Rabbi Huna continues, “When his father came and caught him engaged in lewd behavior, he began to shout…But his friend who was there said: ‘You ruined this youth’s character and yet you shout at him! You ignored all other professions and opened a shop for him just in a street where prostitutes dwell!’
In other words: does the father not bear some of the guilt in this case?
“This is what Moses said: “Lord of the Universe! You ignored the entire world and caused your children to be enslaved only in Egypt, where all worshipped lambs, from whom Your children learned (to do corruptly). It is for this reason that they have made a Calf! … Bear in mind whence You have brought them forth!”
We pick up cues from our environment as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. After spending years in a place that worshipped idols, the Israelites naturally would think that such behavior was entirely appropriate to the situation.
This year, Miley Cyrus was one of the ten finalists for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Ultimately, she did not win: they chose Pope Francis, a much better choice from my perspective. But it is interesting that she was one of the possibilities.
If you do not follow pop culture particularly closely, you might not know who she is. But if you are under 12 and female, it is very likely that you know her work. She spent a number of years as a Disney darling, starring in the show “Hannah Montana” about a teenager who has a double life as a pop star. In the show, she is a brunette who wears a blonde wig when she performs, so all of her friends are unaware of her star status. As if none of them were smart enough to recognize her.
If you are quite a bit older than 12 and a fan of the Video Music Awards (also known as the VMAs) you might also be aware of Miley Cyrus’s work. At the VMAs in August, she engaged in a very provocative dance number with Robin Thicke, leaving precious little to the imagination. It was not the most family-friendly entertainment.
And so, in response to that event, I wrote a blog post about it, one that went quietly viral on Facebook, with more than 4,000 views, well past my usual readership. It would seem that I had hit a nerve. It would appear that I touched on a deeper issue, one more important than costume changes at an awards ceremony. Here’s an excerpt:
“Dear Miley Cyrus,
“You certainly received a lot of attention for your VMA performance this past week, which was undoubtedly your intention. It is likely that you think of this event as a rousing success. And the backlash against…your performance is probably a bonus, from your point of view, because we are all now talking about you. Even bad publicity is good publicity, right?…
“Here is the real issue: You had a fan base of millions of young girls who looked up to you and pretended to be you. They had your likeness on their bedroom walls. They sang your songs into their hairbrushes.
“And then you became an adult and that role no longer fit you. Tired of your old image, you shaved off your hair. Good for you.
“So you were standing there with your hair cropped, all eyes on you, a brand-new adult. Imagine what would have happened then had you turned to that fan base and said, ‘girls, you do not have to be pretty or sweet in order to matter in this world. Cut your hair if you want or leave it long – that’s not what’s important. Who you are is what matters most. Choose your own path, and find your own voice.’ Imagine what would have happened then.
“You were, in a word, dangerous. Whole industries would suffer if these girls become empowered. Who is going to buy all this lip-gloss and mascara? Insecurity is what sells product. And more: imagine you had a real message, something deeper and more profound than the simple exhortation to ‘find yourself,’ and that you too had been encouraged to find your own voice. What would you have said then? I really wish that we knew.
“Instead, your handlers convinced you that the best way to break out of your candy-coated shell is to start pole dancing, stripping, and twerking…
“Here is an exercise for you: imagine, for a moment, that you had gone out there on the VMA stage without a microphone that night. Imagine the exact same performance, but without a sound. Would you have garnered the same attention? Yes, absolutely yes. Would we be saying the very same things about you this week? Oh yes, definitely.
“You know what that means? You have been effectively silenced. Your voice was not heard. You were merely there as eye candy, and not as a singer. You are now replaceable…
“[The problem with this situation is that] your God-given talent will eventually want to make itself heard. If you continue on this path, it is going to take more and more drugs to silence it. Your handlers will see to it that you get them. They will be there, ready to go, even before you ask. And then they will tip off the paparazzi regarding the publishable antics of the latest ‘hot mess’…
“In the meantime, I wish all the best to you. I hope that you eventually prove to be better than all of this. I suspect that you are.”
A few people thought I was unduly harsh in my assessment, but most thought that I had exactly pinpointed the problem. Unfortunately, her situation is hardly unique. There are others: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, and Selena Gomez, to name a few.
Every child star faces intense pressure, of course, and many of them try to get attention through sensational means.
But it seems to me that the experience of these women is particularly troubling because it all seems so cynical and deliberate. At the very moment that they are about to come into their own, these young women suddenly veer toward the most vulgar forms of self-expression, as if that’s their highest value.
Should we be worried? Should we be concerned about this? After all, performers come and performers go. It’s a cutthroat business and they are well-compensated for their efforts. They are supposed to be replaceable, right?
No, actually. They’re not. They are talented young women who serve as role models to millions of young girls. And we cannot afford to give girls the message that their role models are expendable. Otherwise, we risk teaching them that women are worthwhile only so long as they are young, charming, and attractive.
There is a second problem here as well, one directly related to our Torah portion this week.
The shows themselves – the live-action Disney shows for tweens – are also part of the problem. Watch one of these shows sometime and you will see what I mean. Watch “Hannah Montana,” or “The Suite Life,” or “Wizards of Waverly Place.” What you will see is an environment where the kids are rewarded for finding ways around their parents’ wishes. You’ll see an environment where it is acceptable and encouraged for tweens to talk back, to be cruel, and to be snarky. You’ll see an environment that teaches kids how to get what they want through manipulation of the adults, most of whom are largely clueless. It’s a training ground to teach kids how to talk their parents into buying more and more products, one that equates love with buying gifts. And it’s one in which material things define a person’s value.
If we don’t want our kids worshipping the Golden Calf of pointless cruelty in the service of endless consumerism, we have a responsibility to police these shows. If you are a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle, sit down with the kids you know and find out what they are watching. Because we can’t trust Disney to be the one to teach them right from wrong. It might seem harmless, but letting them watch the Disney live-action tween shows without supervision is a bit like setting them up with a perfume shop in the red light district: despite your best intentions, you are bringing them into regular contact with a corrupting influence.
What do the Israelites do next? They build a sanctuary.
What that means for us: instead of letting kids watch those kinds of shows, we should bring them here, even if they’re not old enough to sit through a service. We will be indulgent if they’re wiggly. What we offer here at the Temple is a place where kids are valued for who they are, rather than what they have. What we offer here is a community that will give genuine support for an appropriate parental role. What we offer here is a set of alternate values, counter-cultural values, grounded in the ethics of the divine.
 From Nehama Leibowitz, “Ki Tissa 3: Moses Interceded,” New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, pp. 570-1. I have softened the language somewhat, in light of the fact that there might be children present when I deliver this sermon.
January 24, 2014 § 6 Comments
Once when I was a rabbinical student living in Jerusalem, I went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with a group of friends; while we were there I ended up talking to a group of Christians who were also touring the site. When one of them learned that we were Reform Jews, he asked: if you do not observe all the laws of Judaism, then why are you not Christian?
To his way of thinking, Judaism is a religion of law, whereas Christianity transcends it. So if we do not observe the law, we must be Christian, right? Except, of course, that we are not.
Let me explain what is wrong with his syllogism.
First, let me point out that there is a basic disagreement between Judaism and Christianity regarding the nature of law. This disagreement has theological origins, and it creates a different understanding of our mutual obligations as a community.
Specifically: is the rule of law a burden, something restricts our freedom? Or is it the very structure that allows us to live freely without conflict?
In Paulist thought, living according to the laws of the Bible is a source of anxiety because it is not possible to ever fulfill all of them. We are continually sinning by continually coming up short. To this way of thinking, in fact, the giving of the Torah was intended as a prelude, in that it ultimately leads to an entirely different approach to getting right with God. In other words, the purpose of the Torah was to teach us the depth of our sins.
For many Christians, the way to know the right thing to do is to either take the Holy Spirit into your heart and let it guide your decisions or use Jesus’ example as a guide. Charitable giving, for example, should be motivated by this sense of godliness – which is, in fact, why it is called ‘charity’ – it is related to the word for ‘heart.’ You should be moved by the spirit to give.
But we have a different view entirely. For Jews, the commandments are not a burden. The commandments are a gift. They show us the way to live.
Rather than relying on the spirit of God to motivate us to give from our hearts, we tend to be a bit more pragmatic: for example, when faced with the problem of poverty, our approach is to set up a legal structure. We seek to create a system that is capable of adequately meeting the needs of the poor while also equitably distributing the costs of the collection. That’s why we call it ‘tzedakah’ – righteous giving – for it is rooted in the very concept of ‘righteousness.’ You will give, because it is the righteous thing to do. And you will give out of legal obligation to give, because the poor do not have the luxury of waiting until you feel moved to give.
We Jews really like the rule of law. In fact, as a minority culture, we prefer to live in a society that fundamentally respects the rule of law and has a robust and fair court system.
In the Medieval period, for example, the Jews of that time were not citizens of the state in which they lived. Instead, they had a charter from the local prince or duke, which allowed a certain number of families or individuals to live within the borders of the principality or duchy.
And that number could not be exceeded. If you were born in a given principality and lived there all your life, as had your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents, you might still have to find another place to live when you became an adult because the number of Jews allowed in your community had been exceeded. In fact, the charter for the community itself could be revoked at whim, so the whole community might have to move as well.
Not having rights guaranteed by law creates a sense of instability and anxiety that casts a pall over the activities of a given community. No one likes to live in fear.
We Jews tend to like the rule of law because it protects the minority from the majority.
What was – and is – special about the Jewish experience in the United States, for example, is the fact that Jews have had citizenship here from the very beginning. We had no need for special dispensation in order to be here and to participate in the broader society. Whenever we find that we have been excluded or targeted, the law is on our side: we can set things right.
From our perspective, law is not a burden. The rule of law is one of the markers of civilization: it is what allows for a peaceful and stable society.
And it is in this sense that we say that the law is our proof of God’s love for us.
You don’t have to believe in Torah-from-Sinai to appreciate the value of that construction: legislation is a divine right. But, for us, instead of choosing a human King whose will is law, we have located the source of our law in the divine itself, and made the smallest, least important members of the community – the widow, the stranger, and the orphan – our most important legislative priorities. As a matter of religious obligation we must take care of the weakest and poorest among us because God wants us to.
So now let me proceed to my second point regarding my questioner’s syllogism: he wrongly assumes that Jewish law is synonymous with Biblical law.
The Jewish legal system is founded on the Biblical text, which we call the ‘written Torah’. However, we also have a parallel legal tradition – the oral Torah. The oral Torah, according to tradition, is comprised of the laws that God taught Moses orally at the same time as transmitting the written text.
This oral text was compiled Rabbi Judah the Prince around the year 200 in our secular calendar – his document is called the Mishnah. His text attracted the rabbis’ ongoing commentary, which was compiled and redacted in the sixth century. That commentary is called the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together are called the Talmud. And that text – the Talmudic text –also received ongoing commentary as well. So, when you look at a page of Talmud, what you will see is a conversation that extends from the Biblical period to the modern day.
When you speak of Jewish law in its traditional terms – from Moses to Rabbi Judah the Prince to the Talmud – it all seems rather seamless. And it is seamless, in one sense, for it is in fact an organic growing body of work. But what is not so obvious in that narrative is the rupture that occurs in the year 70 of our secular calendar.
In the year 70, the Second Temple was destroyed. Up until that point, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.
And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos. The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy. As we read in the Bible, ‘If you observe all of My commandments, then there will be rain in its season…’ These commandments helped keep the cosmos in order.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
The ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding. God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.
All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.
Which brings me to my third point: what the man who questioned us did not understand is that the Reform movement has not transcended or repudiated the law.
We do not follow its medieval interpretations: that much is indeed true.
But we have not left that ongoing conversation. In the Reform context, we take the approach that major upheavals in Jewish life – such as the destruction of the Second Temple – call for a revision in our relationship to the law. We are responding to the upheaval caused by the Enlightenment and our Emancipation.
As I mentioned earlier, Jews in the medieval period were not citizens of the state in which they lived. They were, instead, subjects of a prince or duke who would grant them a charter to live within the principality or duchy. So, if you were born into the Jewish community, you were generally unable to leave it unless you converted or became an outlaw. Or both. There were a few – Spinoza, for example – who left the community but never joined another. His was a very lonely life.
After Jews were granted emancipation in Europe – after Jews became citizens of the state in which we lived – then participation in Jewish life became voluntary. And it became possible to make a distinction between religious and secular spheres. That’s why it’s possible, for example, for me to teach Judaism at a public university without conversionary intent. The classroom at the university is secular space. Yet when I deliver a sermon, I do so in a religious sense: the sanctuary is religious space.
What the upheavals of the past two centuries mean for us is that we need Reform. We need to be able to reconsider the received tradition in light of our new understanding of the world and of ourselves.
One area, for example, in need of revision is our understanding of the non-Jews in our midst: as equal citizens, we relate to our fellow-citizens in distinctly different ways than we did in the medieval period.
And we also have extended our appreciation of equal rights into areas of Jewish law as well: we seek to protect underrepresented and minority groups within our own culture as well, such as gays and lesbians.
For us, there is a middle ground between the poles of ‘follow the commandments in their most literal form as received in the Torah’ and ‘repudiate the laws entirely.’ To be Jewish, in our view, is to be part of an ongoing conversation and an evolving legal tradition. To be Jewish is to be commanded, yes, but it is also to be engaged in an ongoing conversation with the texts.
January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
The language of autonomy that has dominated the Reform movement’s discussion has been a distraction from our core principles, from what has been the driving force of our religious self-understanding.
Yes, to be sure, we allow for individual choice. And yes, that should continue. It just isn’t the sum total of our religious commitments, however. Somehow we have put the emphasis on the least important part. Rather, we are indeed commanded, in the fullest religious sense.
More specifically: we are commanded to respect human dignity in all its forms. And this commandment amounts to something much deeper, grander, and more pervasive than Kant’s philosophical ethics. Kant teaches ‘treat everyone as an end rather than a means to an end.’ He also teaches the need to universalize ethics. But where his ethics really falls short – and where the Reform movement fundamentally parts ways with Kant – is regarding the question of feeding the poor.
In Kant’s view, if you have done what is right, and have attended to all of your moral duties, it is possible to walk past someone who is hungry without a thought. A sense of pity, in fact, is a moral weakness, for it might distract you from the rational calculation of your duties. As long as you yourself have not done something directly that was immoral to cause that person’s poverty, you have met your moral obligations.
We Jews say no. To the contrary: a person who is hungry is indeed a person. And leaving that person to remain hungry is to profane the very name of God. You must act. You are commanded to act. The commandment to practice tzedakah – righteousness – that is, the commandment to engage in righteous living, to respond righteously to the challenge of hunger is a fundamental pillar of Jewish practice and belief. We differ as to the best ways to go about doing that, but you must act. You are commanded to act in response to this person, created in the image of God.
This commandment, in fact, is a point of agreement across all streams of Judaism.
Where the liberal movements part ways with the Orthodox, however, is on the question of extending that sense of human rights beyond the challenge of hunger. We Reform Jews take that commandment so seriously that we extend its reach: we are also commanded to treat persons with dignity in all other areas of life, which (among other things) means offering an equal opportunity to participate in the community.