What did the Romans destroy?
August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.
Up until the destruction of the Temple, 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.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.
If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.
In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.
They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: 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.
Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.
And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.
So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.
For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.
God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.
Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.
In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.
Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.
Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.
Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?
Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.
Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.
I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.
We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.
Does God Punish Us with Illnesses?
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.
As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.
When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.
Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.
But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”
And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.
Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?
In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.
And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.
I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.
What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.
Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.
Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.
Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.
And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’
Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.
What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.
In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?
Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.
And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.
The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.
What counts most?
May 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
This week’s Torah portion is all about counting: taking a census of the Israelites as they head toward the Promised Land. At first blush, a census does not seem to be the most interesting topic. For most of us, it’s right up there with accounting rules and seating charts.
Hear, for example, Eli Horowitz’s reflection on this portion: “The Bible is, of course, full of excitement: fighting and feasts and sex and weird food rules and weird sex rules. It’s a real page-turner, no doubt. But amid those rollicking good times, every now and then there’s a…pause. A moment of reflection, or a meditation on core values – or, in this case, the logistical procedure for a regional census, followed by detailed results of said census and also some discussion of campground zoning.”
“Of course, that’s just a rough summary,” he continues. “The actual text gets much juicier. I mean, this census isn’t going to just organize itself, is it? Of course not, and don’t worry – the Lord has thought of everything. For example, you were probably wondering who was going to help Moses and Aaron count the members of the Asher clan; well that’d be Ocran’s son Pagiel.”
He admits that the portion is probably “sounding a little dull” and, as a result, he finds that he is “left looking for lessons, the essential truths at the heart of this seemingly mundane recitation.”
That would make two of us. What should we make of this accounting?
In the case of Horowitz, he asks a series of rhetorical questions: “Does this passage teach us the benefits of taking stock, counting up who we are and what we have? Or is it, perhaps, a meditation on neighborhood dynamics, urban planning, the diverse roles that make up a community? Maybe. It’s possible,” he writes. 
But he doesn’t sound convinced: “Maybe, “ he writes, “what we’re reading here is just a reminder that sometimes things are a little…boring. Some days you might find yourself spending hours rearranging your living room, or alphabetizing your record albums, or choosing which among your children will serve as specialized ark-porters.” Sometimes life involves rather dull moments, it seems.
But I find that I am not so moved by this description. My own sense, based on my own lived experience, is that even the mundane moments have the potential to be transcendent. The rearranging might give you a new view on things. The alphabetizing might reacquaint you with who you were when you bought those albums. The choosing among your children forces a re-examination of your relationship with them.
Many of us, in fact, find greater resonance in the mystic viewpoint: the mystics hold that the world is suffused with meaning, a glorious transcendence that we, on rare occasions, are most privileged to witness.
In search of such meaning, then, perhaps I could tell you a few small facts: Did you know that when counting a minyan — the ten Jews needed for a quorum to pray — that it is traditional not to count each person but to say ‘not one,’ ‘not two’ and so on? Or, alternatively, to use a prayer or verse that has ten words in it, assigning each person a word in the verse until the quorum is reached?
The reason for this custom of not-counting reaches back to this week’s Torah portion: Jews are only to be counted when God asks for a census; to do so otherwise might lead to a plague. We may number our days — as the Psalmist exhorts us — but we may not number our Jews, at least not until God says so.
Yet, of course, we want to. Counting defines our reality: to not count is to not be present, to not be noticed, whereas ‘to count’ is to matter.
This issue is precisely why Reform Jews and other liberal denominations count women in the minyan: the women need to matter as much as the men. The women should also be counted, noticed, and heard. The men are not the only ones who ‘count’ in our congregation.
And further, we find that we want to count our households. We need to have an accurate count for the purposes of budgeting and planning. Our congregation’s size also determines the rate of dues for the Union for Reform Judaism. We need to know who’s in and who’s out, who has moved and who has stayed invested in our community.
In that sense, then, it seems most appropriate that we encounter this portion in the week immediately preceding our annual meeting. This coming Wednesday is the date of our annual census: we number our households and take a vote on the basis of that number, setting the bounds of our budget, and defining the congregation’s priorities.
And in that context, an accurate count will define what we can and cannot do: we need to know what is in the bank accounts, how many households will contribute to our shared community, and what kinds of dreams we may dream.
Yet even more is at stake than that. This week is, in fact, a big week for us, for you and for me, for we are entering into a longer-term contract together.
What that means, of course, is that our reality will change. My role has already shifted in the past few months, changing bit by bit as the congregation looks out over a long stretch of unbroken time with the same rabbi.
These days, I am less and less of a logistical administrator and more and more of a spiritual leader. These days, I am called on for more and more pastoral care. That’s wonderful news, really, and I am honored to serve.
It is, at the core of it, an expression of trust: I’ll be here for you when it counts.
 Eli Horowitz, “B’midbar (‘In the Desert’),” Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, Roger Bennett, ed. (New York: Workman Publishing, 2013), pp. 244-5.
Pekudei — Perfecting your soul
February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
What happens when you pray regularly?
What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Let me explain. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God’s presence would be made manifest to them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This presence was considered dangerous: there was a clear need to set limits and define boundaries so that no one would be harmed by it.
So, as we read in this week’s portion, the Israelites were commanded to build a Mishkan – a portable tabernacle where they would encounter God’s presence in a structured way. And they became accustomed to offering sacrifices as part of their relationship to God.
Ultimately, the theology grew up around the Temple that these sacrifices were keeping the world in order. They were the activities that kept chaos at bay. And, as the society became more centralized and urbane, these activities became centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, the Temple was the very center of the world: the place where heaven and earth touch.
However, in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were left with the question of what to do about worshipping God. Does it matter that we no longer have the commanded forms of sacrifice available to us? Or are there other possibilities that might be equally valid?
Let’s look at Maimonides’ answer. For Maimonides, the highest form of worship is the contemplation of God. The outward forms of prayer – such as the sacrificial system – are not what matters most. For him, the contemplation of God is what matters most.
The contemplation of God is no small task, as it requires sustained effort. Most of us nowadays are a bit sleep-deprived, so sitting still long enough to engage in contemplation might instead provide an opportunity for a nap. In Maimonides’ time, it’s possible that folks got more sleep – not being distracted by playing Flapping Birds on the iPad or catching up on missed episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix – but they had at least as many opportunities to get sidetracked by business and family life as we do.
Therefore, Maimonides argues, God commanded the creation of the sacrificial cult, which would provide a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp without sustained effort and training. Moreover, engaging in sacrifice helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
In other words, he argues, if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.'”
The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
These forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer available, each worshipper had to create prayer-forms individually. And that was exceedingly difficult.
It was for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly developed a structured prayer-service. These are the folks who created the ‘baruch atah Adonai…’ formula that is so familiar to us today. They made it possible for us to lean on an existing form, rather than having to make it up ourselves each and every time we pray.
Maimondes also argues that the creators of these forms had a specific goal in mind: They created this structure so that the worshipper might use it to perfect himself or herself. Over the course of many years, he or she might learn the highest forms of contemplation.
In the Guide III:51, Maimonides lays out the steps to take toward perfection of one’s prayer, using the structure provided by the Men of the Great Assembly. As he begins:
“The first thing that you should cause your soul to hold fast onto is that while reciting the Shema prayer, you should empty your mind of everything and pray thus. You should not content yourself with being intent while reciting the first verse of Shema and saying the first benediction.”
It is not surprising that he chooses the Shema prayer as his starting-point, as it holds a special place in the prayer service. It is found in the Torah, and reflects the perfection of Moses. It is prescribed as the last words for a pious Jew to recite before death, just as it was uttered by Akiba in the last moments of his martyrdom. In addition, it provides a succinct profession of faith, one that affirms the singularity and uniqueness of God.
We should also note here that the direction of this movement prescribed by Maimonides flows from the simplest and most direct concept––the Shema––to the Bible, and then outward toward the rabbinic literature. This structure reflects the legal distinction of d’oreita (originating from the Torah, the most authoritative source) and d’rabbanan (originating from the rabbis, which is binding, but less authoritative). It also reflects the pattern for the education of the young.
Once this stage has been mastered, it is then possible to continue. As he explains:
“When this has been carried out correctly and has been practiced for years, cause your soul, whenever you read or listen to the Torah, to be constantly directed––the whole of you and your thought––toward reflection on what you are listening to or reading.”
Here Maimonides is teaching his reader how to develop the capacity for hyper-focused attention: First, learn how to clear the mind and consider just this one thing (a task that by itself takes years to master), and then, apply that focus to the Torah reading. Having done that, one might use the Torah text itself as a source of contemplation:
“When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thought is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are uttering and at considering its meaning.”
Once this step has been mastered, it is then possible to focus on the remainder of the service; one approaches the Haftarah portion next, and then the various benedictions in the service. One should start with this singular affirmation expressed by the Shema, and then work methodically towards expanding this capacity for concentration in prayer.
Eventually, it might be possible to differentiate clearly between the prayer-state and mundane-state of mind, and to transition between them at will. Maimonides suggests that the quiet time after the day is finished is ideal for this kind of reflection:
“When, however, you are alone with yourself and no one else is there and while you lie awake upon your bed, you should take great care during these precious times not to set your thought to work on anything other than that intellectual worship consisting in nearness to God and being in His presence in that true reality that I have made known to you and not by way of affectations of the imagination.”
Having used the prayer-service as a vehicle for training, it is now possible to achieve, and achieve at will, that state of hyper-focused intentionality.
During these moments at the end of the day when there is quiet in the house, it is possible to think without interruption. Therefore, Maimonides admonishes, do not waste this precious time thinking about business or household concerns; you have had all day to do so. This quiet time is designated for contemplation at the highest level.
So, let us return to our opening questions: what happens when you pray regularly? What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Praying regularly helps us develop the discipline to think about the big questions. Our culture teaches us to run away from them: to cover them up with noise and business, to drown them with consumption in excess, to avoid them through diversion and entertainment. But such activity leaves us feeling hollow.
Praying regularly allows us to cut through the noise and clutter, so that when you stop to think about the big questions – the questions that keep you up at night – you have a structured, disciplined way of considering these things, rather than being held ransom by your anxieties and insecurities.
In other words, what happens when you pray regularly, really pray, according to Maimonides? You perfect your soul.
Vayakhel — O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz?
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.
Ki Tisa — Miley Cyrus and Graven Images
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.
Yitro: the 10 Commandments
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.
January 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
What does it mean to be redeemed?
The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah.
What does it mean to be redeemed?
We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:
“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.” (JPS translation)
Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.
Three days later, they are complaining.
What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?
I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’
The hardest part of redemption is learning to think yourself worthy of it.
December 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
An interesting thing happened to me last week: in a single sitting I read the portion of the week (which was Miketz) and then wrote a commentary on it — yet (without realizing it) I focused on the material in this week’s portion (Vayigash). I don’t know why that happened exactly. I could, of course, read meaning into my choice: perhaps it happened for a reason. Perhaps there was someone (me or someone else) who needed to hear that message in that week. That was, in fact, my first impulse when I started writing this week: to find some meaning in the error.
The irony of it, however, is that my message last week counseled against reading too much meaning into random events. Perhaps, then, God has a sense of humor.
Regardless, we have this strong need, of course, to explain ourselves. We have this desire to make a narrative out of our lives, to provide context and meaning.
Whenever there is a catastrophe, for example, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.
The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.
It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, to leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.
And there is also a second position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being? Do we not have an agreement that tragedy should not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, should all stay clear of us, so long as we ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day’?
In the wake of tragedy we are often angry with God: we had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.
Why, then, should we care about theology?
What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman, or as an invisible force, or (to borrow an image from the avowedly secular) as a flying spaghetti monster? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God?
Theology defines what is possible in our lives.
To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not. In Joseph’s world, miracles do happen: God guided him to this very moment to save his family from famine.
This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.
So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?
November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues.
But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, in fact, he is second only to Pharaoh.
If he wanted to, he could have them imprisoned — or killed. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. Do they miss him? Do they ever think of him? Do they ever wish that they had acted better?
After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, sobbing. This process of testing proves to be difficult for him, and emotionally wearing on him. Reconciliation is what he really wants.
As part of his weepy speech, Joseph also says something rather problematic, from a theological perspective. It’s not obviously bad, and, frankly, it’s a pretty common theology. He tells them: ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth.’
This kind of theology can wound you. What happens if it does not seem like God has a plan for you? What happens if you face a tragedy that makes you re-think all those carefully constructed ideas?
That is to say: it very well could be true that God has sent each of us to do a specific set of things. It could be that we are here for a specific reason. It is in fact quite comforting to think that God has plans for us.
The difficulty, however, is when that kind of theology breaks down: what happens when life itself is breathtakingly cruel? What happens when we find we just cannot make sense of it? How, then, do we put ourselves back together in the wake of an unimaginable loss, a great catastrophes, or an overwhelming defeat?
That is to say: the rationalizations might fail us. The narrative might become impossible.
Then, ideally, we might come to realize that even in its most extreme situations, even at the worst times, even when the world does not work the way we think it should, our life — the individual life of each and every one of us — matters. Even then.