A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Israel - Darkness During the Festival of Light

I'm a mess of mixed emotions right now. I can barely bring myself to look at pictures of beautiful Palestinian children bandaged, bloody and bruised as a result of Israeli rocket attacks in Gaza - of corpses lined up next to one another surround by people wailing in grief. Try as we might, we cannot pretend that these are the faces of Hamas terrorists. Certainly Hamas terrorists and agents of their administrative apparatus have been killed - but these children? All of the bodies in the street? I believe in the moral value of proportionate response in war - that is, the notion that it is immoral to respond disproportionately to a threat. It is hard to see this as proportionate.

And yet...why has the world been silent as Hamas has violated the truce that was in place? As Hamas fired rockets into Israeli civilian areas? An organization with medieval social values and political objectives attacks the only democracy in the area and escapes without criticism. This is Israel's predicament, constantly: its sovereignty is violated innumerable times, it faces deadly attacks against its citizens, responding the way any other nation on earth would if it faced similar threats - yet the world is silent. Voices of outrage come only when Israel responds.

And yet, again...it is agony to see the Jewish state involved in this. This is not why Israel was created. Can Israel be more than a state? Must it be locked in realpolitique? Does it deserve the title Jewish state if it cannot transcend?

We must respond to this by turning to Jewish values and reflecting. Our responses cannot be conditioned by anxiety about whom we will disappoint or about whose side we fear to be on.

May it be Your will that the children of Abraham and the children of Ishmael one day live in peace.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Young Jews and the Shoah

What we've known anecdotaly for some time is now beginning to be common knowledge: young Jews do not see the Holocaust as an essential part of their Jewish identity. An article from Moment discussing new research is here.

For centuries Jewish identity and cohesion has been an alchemy of the Jewish past and present. Jews in 2008, young or old, don't get a lot of mileage from an emphasis on suffering in the recent past. It is not the experience of most Jews. The challenge is to give people meaning in a world in which all frameworks of meaning are under assault.

For many baby boomers the cornerstones of recent Jewish history are the Holocaust and the 1967 war. These are an important part of their experience and identity. The primary experience of younger Jews is one of domestic stability, tolerance, affluence, and an absence of anti-semitism. With regard to Israel, the formative memory is probably 1982 and Lebanon, which frames a view of Israel as the persecutor.

Basically, young people, like all people, are looking for authentic responses to questions about the meaning of Judaism. "Because our ancestors suffered" has never been enough.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Inauguration of Hate

Oy. Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church fame, will give the invocation at Obama's inauguration. What an awful gesture on Obama's part, a shameful gesture. Ugh. Blech. I assume it's an attempt to "unify" the nation, to reach out and demonstrate that he intends to be the leader of the entire nation, not just of Democrats. And, significantly, a calculating political move designed to bring more conservatives into the Democratic fold.

Isn't Obama more clever than this? This is the only way he could imagine to accomplish those goals for his party? There will now be a fundamentalist Christian who wants to use the literal word of the Bible as a blueprint for public policy inaugurating my President? I'm getting Jewish-y shivers.

Shame on Barack Obama. Oy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time Out for Fun - Music to be Plagued By

Someone just brought to my attention a brilliant concept (thanks, Steve). There is an album called "Plague Songs" with various artists performing their own musical interpretation of the Ten Plagues from the book of Exodus.

You can buy the CD here, the label's site is here, and the blurb about the CD follows....

Ten international singer-songwriters have each been commissioned by Artangel to write and record a song inspired by one of the ten biblical plagues. Following the original biblical order of the plagues, Plague Songs opens with Klashnekoff’s menacing Blood, via King Creosote’s bewitching Relate the Tale (Frogs) and Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt’s insistent Flies, Laurie Anderson’s mournful The Fifth Plague (Death of Livestock) and Imogen Heap’s mesmeric Glittering Cloud (Locusts) to Scott Walker’s evocation of Darkness and Rufus Wainwright’s tragic Katonah (Death of The Firstborn).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who's Praying Who?

Beautiful Weirdness from the Talmud.

In the Talmud (Brachot 7A if you care) there is a "whoah, heavy" moment (Dude, have you watched the Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon?) that just blew me away when I read it.

Following an assertion that God prays, the question immediately comes up, "Well, what does God pray?"
Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav, [God prays] “May it be My will that My mercy will conquer My anger, and that My mercy will overcome My [other] attributes. And may I deal with My children according to the attribute of mercy and deal with them more generously than the law requires.”

Huh? To whom - or is it, to Whom - is God praying? "May it be My will"? Who is controlling God's will? If it is merely God focusing God's own intention so that God remembers to be merciful, does this teach us something about our own prayers? Are they simply words intended for the one who prays? One way to deal with this is to say that God is actually powerless. Perhaps the prayer reflects Divine acknowledgment that the universe moves along and God can only say "May it be...."

And what are we to think, as we pray? Keep in mind that many of our blessings begin with this same formulation (May it be Your Will....) If we mimic God, who is praying, and if clearly God can have no object to whom Divine prayers are directed, then are we praying to no effect?

Things get stranger. This passage is followed immediately by a story:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said, “Once I entered into the inner sanctuary [the Holy of Holies] to make an incense offering. I saw Achtari’eil Yah Adonai Tzva’ot, who was sitting on a high and elevated throne. He said to me, ‘Yishmael, My son, bless Me. I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy will conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy will overcome Your [other] attributes. And may You deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and deal with them more generously than the law requires.’” He bowed to me.

Dude. Pass the Fritos. It could be that the previous prayer - the one that God is understood to pray - comes from this. That is, this story about Yishmael may be placed here as an explanation of the previous paragraph. So, the Talmud is saying, "How do we know that God prays that prayer? Well, Yishmael once blessed God with it, and God recognized the legitimacy of the prayer by bowing [a commentator imagines God saying "Amen"].

But it could work in the other direction [hat tip to Channah Rose for this]: it could be that God's prayer is proof that when Yishmael encountered God, the prayer Yishmael uttered was put in his head by God. So, Yishmael had the experience of praying by his own volition but was actually a vessel for words planted in him by God.

This also suggests a way to understand the meaning of prayer in our experience. Words that feel either like spontaneous outpourings of the heart, or words that come to us prescribed by the tradition, are actually words "returning to their source." Seen in this light, prayer becomes a meditation, a deep and profound meditation, with subject and object coming together; matter and maker becoming one through meditative language itself.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Channukah's History and Mystery

Correction: This class is in the main building - 3950 Baseline Road in Boulder. Not in our south building, as the post below indicates.

I'm teaching a class on the history and mystery of Channukah on December 2nd and 9th at 6:30 at Har HaShem. The class is in our south building at 3901 Pinon Drive in Boulder. You can check out the blurb for the class, and the entire Jewish Enrichment program we have lined up for the year here. Each class is $5 for Har HaShem members. I think it's $18 for non-members. It would be helpful if you would call Katherine Schwartz at 303.499.7077 (or email her at k.schwartz@harhashem.org) to let her know you're intending to come to the class.

We'll explore a little of the history, some of the traditions of Channukah, and look at the dark side (Jewish zealot heroine decapitates Greek king) and the light side (the mystical teachings of hope and possibility in the holy day).

Blurb for the class:

Channukah may be a festival that kids love – but
it’s not just for kids. We will look at the grown-up
themes of Channukah, including violence and
betrayal worthy of The Godfather, Jewish guerilla
warfare, and the difference between the true history
and what you were taught in religious school. We
will also explore the religiousmeaning of Channukah
through some traditional texts and how what you
thought was eight days of latkes and gifts is really
an opportunity for insight and self-transcendence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Meditations on Jewish Psychedelia, Volume II

Last time I wrote about the intense and subtle artistry of the first prayer before the Shema (in the evening prayers). The prayer that follows it, ahavat olam, is another heavy-duty beauty, with meaning to spare.

One hidden-out-in-the-open idea in this poem reflects a crazy combination of faith and fear, or confidence and insecurity.

It begins, "You have loved your people the Children of Israel with an eternal love." What does it mean for God to love us? Well, the prayer doesn't say. But it suggests what that love looks like from our end: "Therefore, Adonai, our God, when we lay down and get up we will talk about your laws and we will be happy about the words of Your Torah and Your commandments - forever."

So, whatever Divine love means, we experience it by spending our time thinking about and talking about the meaning of our lives. According to the prayer, that's what it feels like to be loved by God: you meditate on the purpose of your life.

And remeber, we opened with an assertion that this will last forever. I like to understand this as saying that our lives will always be filled with meaning. God might take away everything we can touch - money, relationships, Doritos - but God will not remove our sense of meaning and purpose, because God loves us with "an eternal love." And we are emphatic about this because we then say that we will "talk about" and "be happy about" God's commandments (what I'm caling our meaning) "forever" [I've bolded the phrases above to show that they're the same word in Hebrew: olam. So, no matter what happens, we'll be 'ok' and will always have a sense that on a deep level, life has meaning and purpose.

But then, like a high-school Romeo in the third week of love, we become insecure. In the very last line of the prayer before the concluding blessing, we see "Never take away Your love from us." [Again, bold because it is the same word: olam - well, actually olamim, a variation].

What? We open the prayer saying that God loves us with eternal love. Eternal, as in always. And then we say that we will experience this in a happy way, always. This sounds good. As in, no problem, lots of love to go around - nothing to worry about.

But then, at the end, we do worry: "Never take awy Your love from us." What does this line say about the first line? Or about us? Does it mean that Divine love isn't really eternal? If so, why would we worry that it would be taken away? How could it be if it's eternal? Does it mean that it is eternal, but we are so neurotic that we can't really handle that, can't accept it?

In other words, we close this prayer with a desperate plea: please don't make our lives a drag in which we have nothing meaningful to think or talk about, in which we have to listen to Sean Hannity endlessly. Please don't let me come to believe that "90210" is all there is to think about.

This is a prayer for this time. The collapsing economy has a lot of people frightened. I've spoken with many people who are living with a deep sense of insecurity. In some cases, it is anxiety about what might be coming down the road. For others, it is about real and profound shifts in their lives brough about by recent events.

Is it possible to experience "God's love" at a time like this? Can I have a sense of enduring meaning and purpose when everything that I can touch dissolves? I think the prayer is ambivalent - that is, it is deeply human and honest. We are sure that even when everything seems unstable, that what really matters to us will keep us upright. Yet we walk around with a fear and nagging suspicion that it may all be for naught.

Prayers are only beautiful when they express what we really feel. This is no Hallmark card: this is Jewish prayer.

Finally, there's an essential and inextinguishable hope built into the prayer. Because the dissonant note of insecurity and the fear implicit in the closing lines of the prayer are part of the conversation about God's intentions for us. They are part of the conversation about the purpose of our lives. And this, according to the earlier part of the prayer, is what it means to experience God's love: when we discuss, meditate on, and rejoice in God's Torah, we experience love. The insecurity becomes part of the pattern of security and stability. Anxiety is coopted into a broader pattern of meaning.

When I write sentences like that last one, it generally means that the engines are shutting down and it's time to go to bed. Good night.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Torah Portion Chayei Sarah: In Death as In Life

I'm thinking about this parshah in light of Proposition 8. As I indicated in an earlier post, the passage of the amendment, and the Mormon Churche's declaration that it's actions in supporting the bill were beyond criticism really got under my kittel.

In reading the parshah and some midrashim attached to it, I thought about this constitutional travesty and miscarriage of justice. [Obligatory and obvious clarification that traditionally Judaism does not countenance gay marriage].

Now that that's out of the way, onward: to me the most powerful part of the midrash is when the servant Eliezer, sent by Abraham to find a wife for Abraham's son Isaac, and now far from home, finds Rebecca and gazes upon her in amazement.

He announces himself and gives her gifts of earrings, bracelets, and gold. Targum Yonatan comments that the half-shekel earing corresponds to the half-shekel contribution that the Israelites will contribute to help in the construction of the mishkan (the roving Temple used in the desert). The midrash Genesis Rabbah says that the two bracelets correspond to the two tablets of the commandments, and the ten shekel's weight of gold correspond to the ten commandments.

Time collapses at the moment that Rebecca is "discovered" by Eliezer. The Israelite present and future become one as we are reminded that the coupling of two people - Isaac and Rebecca - carries much, much more than their personal longings and desires. It is the root of the history of an entire people and it makes possible the creation of a moral future. As Eliezer gazes at her it is as though he sees the significance of his discovery of her and everything that will follow from it.

Isaac's and Rebecca's relationship is described in terms that would have Freud reaching for his cigar. The Torah says that in Rebecca, Isaac found comfort after his mother's death. The midrash goes further, indicating that Isaac's attraction to Rebecca stemmed from a similarity between the two women - Rebecca conducted herself precisely like Sarah and her presence brought reminder's of Sarah's life back to her son.

What strikes me about the story, with the midrashic details added, is the family psychology. Sarah's death hangs over the parshah; her son is invisible, presumably in mourning for his mother. He is broken, we learn at the end of the parshah, but meeting his wife has revived him and allowed him to triumph over the bitterness of his grief.

Those who seek to deny marriage to gays and lesbians are blind to the psychological depth of gay relationships. They are obsessed with seeing them as merely sexual, or rather as merely "aberrant," non-normative acts. What has become so clear, though, is that such relationships are....relationships. They are complex, beautiful expressions of personal narrative, history and intimacy. We need other human beings to help us move beyond pain, grief, loss, personal history. Anti-gay activists do not want to accept that this is just as possible in relationships between two men or two women as between a man and a woman.

And just as Eliezer gazed upon Rebecca in amazement, aware of the potential of this woman to create a new reality by a holy relationship with Isaac so too should we see the millions of gay people seeking to sanctify their relationships as bearers of history. Each relationship has the potential to transform the individuals who engage in them but also to sanctify the entire society - to build it, improve it, strengthen it with the intense love that exists between two human beings.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Meditations on Jewish Psychedelia, Volume 1

Beginning tonight I will periodically and briefly explore prayers from the siddur (prayerbook). I'm calling this series "Explorations of Jewish Psychedelia" because 1) it's eye-catching and 2) the Greek roots of the word brush up against my understanding of prayer. Psyche means "soul" and delos means "manifest." Liturgy is psychedelic in two ways. First, it is the manifest content of the historical Jewish soul, recorded over time. Second, prayer is an attempt to make the soul manifest, to draw it out of its latency and into reality.

Tonight, some thoughts on the evening prayer known as the ma'ariv aravim. The title comes from the first sentence, usually translated in a way that looks something like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, whose word brings on [ma'ariv] the night [aravim]."

A sweet little poetic touch here. The phrase ma'ariv aravim captures precisely and concisely the central idea of the clause: that God's word is the cause of night. ma'ariv is the verb form [causative, if you care] of the root a-r-v, night, the noun that follows directly after it.

, "brings on night" is an unusual word. It is created by taking the root of the noun evening and just making it a causative verb. In fact, most literally, the sentence means "Blessed are You, Adonai....who nights the night." By this verbal play, the sentence reflects on a linguistic level the expressed meaning of the sentence - night is caused by God "nighting." So, the author tries to get us to see through language what is beyond language. The passing of the day and the coming on of darkness is effected by God speech. But the "speech" in this case is actually just the attribution through clever language of a physical reality - the coming of darkness - to an action by God.

This is a more beautiful way of understanding the mysterious idea that God creates through speech. Taken simply, and literally, we imagine a being that actually speaks words which then create physical reality. This is pretty hard to accept. This prayer gets at something deeper: the understanding of physical reality as God's speech.

In the creation story, our translations usually read something like "God said 'Let there be light' and there was light." Because of the way the present and future tenses of the verb 'to be' work in English (be/was), the translation cannot capture the linguistic identity of God's spoken word and the result. In Hebrew, it is y'hi or, v'yhi or. To capture the similarity in both the sound and appearance of the words, ignore the illogical syntax in the following English, which reflects the identity of the two Hebrew phrases: "God said 'Let there be light,' and let there be light."

That English captures how the exact Hebrew command by God is used to express the result. Another way to render it in English that is more true to that feature of the Hebrew, but less true to the grammatical meaning, would be "God said 'Light!' and: light!"

In both the Genesis story and this beautiful prayer, the Hebrew captures the true meaning of divine speech: physical reality is God's articulated message to human beings. There is something causing physical reality, a force 'speaking' it into existence. If we listen, we can hear.

Tuesday Night: David Schneer at the Rock n Soul Cafe in Boulder

An amazing program planned for Tuesday night. If you're in Boulder, please come and join us - we're looking forward to a great evening of conversation.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Religious Bigots Win in California

Well, California Proposition 8 failed. Put differently, the constitution of the state was amended so that gays and lesbians have been stripped of their right to marry there.

A significant player in the "Yes on 8" - that is, the anti-gay marriage side - was the Mormon Church. I read an article on the National Review's website (they supported Prop 8) arguing that the very strong criticism by Prop 8 opponents targeting the Church amounted to bigotry.

Nonsense. It is the religiously motivated backers of anti-gay legislation who are the bigots. Pointing out their support for laws designed to deny right to gay people is not bigotry. A religious minority that acts hatefully is not immune from criticism just because it is a minority.

What's the Jewish perspective on this? There are two Jewish perspectives. There's the confused and shortsighted view and then there's, well, mine and that of other forward thinking Jews.

The confused view, endorsed by people like Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, is that the Torah prohibits homosexuality and therefore state constitutions should outlaw gay marriage. Shafran is, of course, entitled to his view of the Torah. If people want to view those parts of an ancient text, written by an ancient people in an entirely different culture, that dehumanize a group of people that is now more fully understood, as authoritative, that is their right. But we don't have to take those arguments seriously as we make social policy - and in fact we have an obligation to fight against the appearance of such arguments in the public square.

Shafran confuses Torah and secular law. Yes, the Torah prohibits certain homosexual acts but it does not follow that the state should use that as a guide in making laws. Would this not be a ludicrous country of we made secular laws based on the multiplicity of religious tradtions within it?

Why is this shortsighted of Shafran and his ilk? Do Jews, roughly 2% of the population of this country, really want to be in the business of encouraging people to use religious texts to make social policy? Haven't we been here before? Didn't our ancestors suffer under monarchies whose power and policies were justified based on their acceptance of Christian law and Church authority? And in an environment in which Christian fundamentalism is still burning strong (yes, weakened by the last election, but not for ever) do Jews seriously want to use the same mindset and tactics they employ?

The state accepts and permits all kinds of behaviors that the Torah would prohibit. If we accept his reasoning, we would be outlawing all kinds of acts that are currently legal, such as seething a kid in its mother's milk, blasphemy, and idolatry. Do Shafran and other biblically-motivated cultural watchdogs hope to use the power of the state to prohibit these?

When a religious leader puts forth such arguments, we needn't demonstrate respect for their piety; neither must we avoid criticism of them because of their status as leaders of religious minorities. The proper response is to call a spade a spade.

So, Rabbi Shafran: you are ridiculous. Your confused and self-defeating arguments have no place in a modern democracy. People such as yourself use the veil of religion to hide the absurdity of the claims they make in the public realm.

Again, to be clear: you are not simply wrong - you are ridiculous. Californian's were having a serious debate about social policy affecting millions of people, and you based your arguments upon the laws in the Torah. (One imagines that Shafran's response would be that his arguments are based upon the so-called Noahide laws that the Torah sets forth for all humanity, as opposed to other laws intended to govern only Jews).

Public policy in heterogeneous democracies must be made based on rational and secular claims. Not because the secular is more authoritative than the religious but because secular rationality is a discourse that can be used by people of diverse backgrounds. I don't try to convince a fellow American who is an atheist that poverty is unacceptable on the grounds that the Prophet Isaiah decries injustice; I may take my inspiration from Isaiah, but my arguments must be grounded in reason.

How can any Jew be so shortsighted as to think that using religious claims to pass laws meddling in the lives of other citizens is a good idea?

The proper Jewish view on the matter of Proposition 8 is that the proposition was wrong and should have been defeated. Let religious communities police themselves, and make their own arguments to their own people. Let the state establish a basic equality for all citizens. This is, in short, good for the Jews.

Time Out For Fun - Yo La Tengo, Sugarcube, Hannukah at Maxwell's

TIme Out for Fun - Sex Pistols, Holidays in the Sun

Time Out For Fun - Dylan, Hard Rain, Live 1976

From the Rolling Thunder Revue

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Closing in on Change

Rosh Ha-Shanah approaches (Monday night). Rosh Ha-Shanah, "Beginning of the Year" can also be understood as the "Beginning of Change" because the words "year" and "change" both have Sh-N-H as their root. I've been thinking a lot about the possibility of change and the dynamics of change.

Can we change? Can the world be changed? This is the challenge to faith - not whether God exists or not, is good or not. If there is anything that we are required to believe in, it is that change is possible - that we are not plants, living out our days waiting to die and be reprocessed as worm feces. Rather, that we inherit a life of a certain sort in a world in a certian condition and we can, through struggle and insight, rise above the contingencies of our existence.

The Aish Kodesh, about whom I've written before, writes very powerfully about the challenges to change. In the past I've focused on actions, on making sure not to do certain things, or to do certain things. The AK views this not even as a low level of change, but as a deeply unhealthy and impermanent form of change.

Instead, he says, we have to work on the person behind the actions, the soul that animates the being. How is it possible that a soul can change itself? What gives it the capacity to move itself from one state to another? The "it" that is seeking to change can become it's own object? Whatzamadda-you?

This is yet another aspect of the word teshuvah, commonly translated as "repentance." The word literally means "answer" and is related to the word "turn." In the process of teshuvah we turn in on ourselves, and, seeking to arrive at the root, examine what and who we are. But the end of the process is the ongoing work of moving ourselves from a lower to a higher state.

And this is the final goal of Rosh Ha-Shanah. Not to make changes to outer appearance or to acts alone. But to try to get at the root and repair what is broken.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Torah Portion: Matot - Killer Torah

Just a short post - it's way too late.

But the news about the arrest of Radovan Karadzic is too good to not share. We thought we had put to its final rest the beastly indulgence in ethnic cleansing with the Shoah and Nuremburg. We were wrong, and the imperative "Never forget" has become a hollow slogan in the shadow of the late-20th and early 21st century horrors. Karadzic's arrest is a blow against wickedness and a small triumph for justice and mercy.

How troubling, then, that this comes while Jews across the world study Parshat Matot, in which the Israelites are commanded to seek revenge upon the people of Midian. Their crime? The Midianite women had tempted the Israelite men into cross-cultural coupling and idolatry. So this week, God's revenge - equated with Israel's revenge - is satisfied with the defeat of these people. The leaders of the attack are admonished by Moses because they failed to kill all of the women.

It helps not at all that traditional apologetics explain that the Midianites were truly evil, stood against hope and truth, represented all that is bad with human nature. In the middle-ages, when these interpretations initially emerged, Jews were powerless and their attempts to understand this parshah spoke to their inability to do violence to any people or polis. They could celebrate these verses or, as is reflected in the literature, be unconcerned with them.

Not now, not in the 21st century. Not in an age in which ethnic cleansing is a bloody, ongoing reality. We can only chip away at the calcified growths of Jewish history covering the light of Torah and try to find understanding in new ways.

A small bit of light: Levi Yitzchak interprets the name of the Torah portion, Matot, from the first sentence of the parshah. Matot means tribes, but he brilliantly rereads this noun as a causative form of the verb [nun-tet-hey] meaning to cause to shift, or incline. He says, "And this is the meaning of matot - for it is possible to shift the attributes of the Holy One from strict judgment to mercy."

That is, with our own acts we can turn the presence of din, with its harsh measures, into rachamim, mercy - and so bring mercy to all of God's people. May it be so.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Torah Portion: Korach - Past and Present, No Future.

I have to get off of this cycle of writing about last week's parshah. But not yet. I put an enormous amount of time into reading up on the parshah and various interpretations of its meaning. By the time I finish with that, I've no time to write. I'll find a new way, but in the mean time, some brief thoughts on Parshat Korach.

This torah portion raises some troubling issues for us democracy-loving, everyone-has-a-right-to-their-opinion softies. Here's the Parshah in short form:

Korach: We're all holy - why do you, Moses and Aaron, have special status?
God: I'm going to destroy that guy.
[destroys Korach and his followers]
Israelites: Oh. My. God.

Rabbinic Judaism was very pluralistic. It is a truism to observe that the very fabric of the Talmud is multiplicity of opinions and disagreements which are often left unresolved. Yet, there was a high degree of uniformity and pressure to conform around the margins. That is, if you accepted the basic tenets of the rabbinic game you were entitled to be part of the diversity of opinions within the game.

I reject the notion that other rabbinic authorities' interpretations of law must guide my Jewish life in particular cases. Yes, that makes me a Reform Jew, but there is a vast multitude of Jews from across the denominational lines (so, an erev rav for those into rabbi jokes) that lives precisely the way I do - whether or not people will publicly acknowledge it.

So, what do I do with a Torah portion that clearly demonizes this Korach who challenges Moses' power and Aaron's authority? Interestingly, the Torah goes out of its way to put a credible argument in Korach's mouth. Korach tells Moses
The entire community, all of them are holy [yes, the grammatical mismatch is in the original], and God is among them - why do you hold yourselves over the community of God? (Numbers 16:3) [*see note at bottom of essay]
Anyway, Korach seems to have a good point. As Ibn Ezra points out, they were all at Sinai - aren't they holy? Why do they need an intercessor?

The tradition brings two different verses to compare to Korach's claim that all of them are holy. One is Exodus 19:6, in which God refers to Israel as A kingdom of priests and a holy [kadosh] nation. The Katav Sofer notes that in this appelation the word holy is singular - because it refers to the unity that is achieved in true holiness; Korach, on the other hand says that all of them are holy [kedoshim], using the plural, suggesting that the holiness of each individual is a solitary - and selfish - pursuit.

The second verse is actually a command. In Leviticus 19 God commands You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy. Holiness, God reminds us here, is not a birthright, but an orientation toward the future. You must commit yourself to becoming holy. Korach, however, claims that everyone is already holy - that is, they have no work to do. Korach deems the present moment, the status quo, as 'good enough.'

Seen in this light, Korach is not a reformer at all, but a reactionary who does not want to support the extant power structure because it is headed somewhere. He thinks things are just fine, and that holiness is not found by striving spiritually, a movement physically represented by the journey through the desert to Eretz Yisrael but is instead right here. It is available now, without any work. Even worse, actually, he and his followers think that the real goal is to move backwards, to when life was easy. They said to Moses,

Is it insignificant that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert! And you rule over us? You have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.... (Numbers 16:13-14)

Their moral laziness has turned the moral universe on its head. For them, Egypt is the land flowing with milk and honey. Their goal is to return to a past of spiritual death and physical servitude. Read in this way, Korach is not a revolutionary trying to overturn the status quo. Quite the opposite - he is a self-interested reactionary seeking to halt the moral and spiritual progress of his people.

There are many such reactionaries today - inside and outside of the Jewish world. For such reactionaries, the status quo is sanctified by virtue of its existence. All of them are holy. Such people think that God has blessed the material arrangements of society as they are, and requires no change.

Alternatively, they may seek to restore what they see as the lost moral order of the past. The mythical past that they construct may overlook the cruelty and brutality of the old order, but they will paint it as a paradise - a land flowing with milk and honey.

The alternative is to see holiness as something that is in front of us. That we can do better, we can create a moral order out of the failings of the present.

[*In terms of the discussion about rabbinic authority, it's interesting that Onkelos, the translator of the Torah into Aramaic, translates hold yourselves over as mit-rav-r'vin, the root of which is rav meaning great, but also meaning master or teacher - that is, rabbi.]

Monday, June 16, 2008

Torah Portion B'Ha'alotcha - Watch Out!

Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago was likely a signal of things to come – both Senators Obama and McCain will need to have themselves baptized in the unholy waters of the American Electorate’s stamp of religious approval in order to be able to sit in the Oval Office. McCain will genuflect before religious conservatives (i.e. evangelicals) to show that he is holy enough for their vote, and no doubt Obama’s speech today was one of several to come reminding us that, in spite of his middle name, he is part of Christendom.

Some have argued that we are witnessing the waning of power of the “religious” right in American public life. If this is so, it is far more convincing proof of the existence of God than is the banana (see the video below if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

One of the consequences of the (now loosened) evangelical choke hold on the throat of democracy has been the electoral ritual of otherwise dignified public servants abjectly demonstrating the strength of their faith before delighted fundamentalist king-makers. Forgive them, Father, they [knew] not what they [did]. Oops, wrong religious tradition.

Perhaps in response to this sorry situation, a counter trend has emerged over the last generation as Americans been turning inward for religious meaning. Inside and outside of established religious movements, seekers have looked to traditional and untraditional rituals and belief systems fundamentally rooted in the private sphere: the individual, closed-off, personal world of spirituality. Here, meaning is not determined or even mediated by a community or tradition. Just the seeker, seeking alone, free to pursue the pleasures of the search.

Good for the Jews?

I’ve been doing some reading that brushes up against this which-way-did-he-go-boss back and forth. In Midrash Rabbah on this week's portion, God is compared to the white part of the eye – which does not see - and we are compared to the black – which does. The analogy works on the simple level because God is compared to fire, which burns brightly (white), and we, being material and inclined to all kinds of hijinx, are impure and so cannot achieve this pure whiteness. Beyond this, though, the analogy suggests that God is blind without humanity – God has no capacity, according to this midrashic analogy, to see into the material world without us, to see what needs to be done, perhaps, and to manipulate that world with our good deeds and create some kind of tikkun (correction).

This is not the Third Eye of some traditions – a perception of higher consciousness, an intuitive capacity to perceive a world of inner meaning. This is an outward looking, real, actual eye – the kind that we cut into little pieces in high school. An eye that sees, enabling the perceiver to react to and make judgments about the environment within which he or she moves. Here’s the fancy part of the midrash. The perceiver is not us – we are the iris. The perceiver is the Perceiver, who relies on the pupil of humanity to see.

In fact, though, the Perceiver – this is getting weird – relies on humanity as a Pupil, i.e. a student. The iris, which appears black, is not actually black. It appears so because the light that it lets in is absorbed by the inner part of the eye. Our darkness, it turns out, is directly related to our capacity to correctly transmit visual information. That is, our placement in the material world, and therefore our imperfection, is fundamental to our capacity to serve as part of the divine mechanism to bring goodness into the world. Without our imperfections, we would not be placed here, in this world, and God would be left blind.

All of this is to say that our role is fundamentally social. While we look inward for self-understanding and are of course encouraged to contemplate the meaning of our private reality, our essential task is to look outward, into the world. Our role is one of responsibility, which implies an engagement with the social world.

How do we avoid becoming arrogant Theocrats? That’s our challenge, and mine to write about….later.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Incontrovertible Proof that the Theory of Evolution is False

As a person who does not take the Torah literally, I was crushed with shame and was forced to concede to the unfairly criticized "fundamentalist" argument for creation after watching this video. Not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hope I Die Before I Get Old

I just came across an article about the possibility that we may, within this century, develop technology that will enable human beings to live more than one thousand years. That sounds miserable to me, but it would lead to an annual one year, instead of two weeks, of vacation for working Americans. Can that be? Someone check my math. Bathroom breaks of over an hour would be considered appropriate. The mind boggles.

The Torah repeatedly promises that our days will be lengthened if we hold up our end of the brit, the covenant. A random example is Proverbs 3:1-2:

My child, do not forget my Torah, and guard My commandments with your heart. For they will give you length of days, years of life and peace.

There are plenty of other examples. It is clear from the context of this and other passages offering material benefits in exchange for adherence to the divine covenant that these benefits are not to be pursued as ends in themselves. One should not think to oneself, “I want to live to see Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2050 – I’d better start keeping kosher.” Instead, our adherence to God’s law is a good in and of itself – the promises of material benefit, whether bountiful crops or long life, come to us as a happy by-product of our maintenance of the proper relationship with God. It also is an affirmation of God’s reality in the world – the rightness of the covenant is so absolute that the created world affirms it. Finally these rewards are a statement about the essential unity of the Divine and physical worlds. God’s creation is imbued with a sense of the covenantal reality that must be competed by human beings. Our relationship with God, in other words, is not intended to hinge on its separation from the limited, physical world – it is expressed through it.

All well and good, but the text clearly says that if we follow God’s Torah, we will be physically rewarded. Not True in my experience, and also morally unacceptable to me because of the punishment implied by the inverse: if we disobey we are punished.

Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, also known as the Aish Kodesh, offers a new understanding of this – he promises us a different kind of immortality, that can be achieved through tikkun, repair of self. He writes the following in his Tzav v’Ziruz, a diary of reflections on seeking moral perfection:

If it is your will to serve God and to lift yourself up do not remain in your seventieth year of your life like you were on the day of your bar mitzvah. Every year set a goal for yourself, fashion yourself. If your name if Reuben for example, which Reuben will you be in the year to come? What will be his accomplishments, his service, his attributes? And this imaginary Reuben will be for you as a measure by which to measure yourself by, how much you still lack compared to this imaginary Reuben. If your service and the correction of your deeds is [tended to] each and every day, it will be enough to acquire the Reuben of the year to come. And if the coming year arrives and your measure yourself and you have not arrived at even a bit [lit: the ankles] of the Reuben of the new year, it will be in your eyes, God forbid, that your days will not be lengthened1. For [in this case] only that Reuben from last year or from ten years ago lives – and not the Reuben from this year; Avraham zakein ba byamim [lit: Abraham became old, he arrived in his days] – Abraham of today. He was of today not yesterday.

So, if we remain the person we were last year, we do not have a long life, so to speak, because who we are is consumed by the passage of time. But if we create a new person in our mind and strive toward that, we are constantly being “reborn” in this new possibility. Maybe not immortality, but a state of ongoing renewal and rejuvenation.

Immortality? Consider that Shapira’s wrote that during the Shoah, the unfolding of the holocaust as his community was being immolated. Now, sixty five years after his death he instructs us how to live fully, to become more than what we are – to move ourselves beyond the constraints of time through spiritual transcendence. The investment of the limited, physical world, with eternal meaning through words of hope penned during days of chaos and death a generation ago: that is immortality.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Time Out for Fun - My Body is A Cage

A piece of secular music that is actually not secular music, by Arcade Fire. Live at the BBC (stage banter until about 45 seconds in). Lyrics are below the video.

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

I'm standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It's a hollow play
But they'll clap anyway

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

I'm living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I'm living in an age
Whose name I don't know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key
My body is a

My body is a cage
We take what we're given
Just because you've forgotten
That don't mean you're forgiven

I'm living in an age
That screams my name at night
But when I get to the doorway
There's no one in sight

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

Set my spirit free
Set my spirit free
Set my body free

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day - Names of the Dead

Click here for the names of American soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Click here for the names of Iraqis killed during the war.

May the one who makes peace in the high heavens bring peace to us, all Israel, and the whole world.

Tonight: Y-Love and Motet Trio at B Side Lounge

Great music, radical Jewish culture -$8, 9pm 2017 13th Street. Come join us. See the post below for details.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

33 and a Third: The Music of Self-Transendence

Tonight begins the 33rd day of the Omer. Beginning on the second night of Passover, we begin counting, each evening, until Shavuot - fifty days later.

Tonight the blessing is,
Baruch ata Ha-shem eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-omer.
Blessed Are you God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us concerning the counting of the omer.
Then you say
Hayom sh'losha usheloshim yom, sh'heim arba-ah shavuot v'chamishah yamim la-omer
Today is 33 days, which are four weeks and five days of the omer.
There are many ways to view these fifty days. In the Torah it is a counting of an agricultural period, beginning at the period of harvest. For the rabbis the counting assured that we would not become so lost in our labor that we forget when we are to go to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot. And the rabbis also affirmed that each day recognizes one of the 49 gates of understanding that Moses received from God. The 50th is not known to humanity, and is beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Because traditionally Shavuot is understood to be the day on which the Torah was given at Sinai, and it concludes the counting of the Omer, the period of counting is seen as an opportunity for the spiritual regeneration and reflection that would allow us to receive Torah. Each of the fifty days should include self-examination and a gradual process of striving to be the best and most pure person one can be.

The first 33 days recount the period during which Rabbi Akiva's 24, 000 students were, according to a tradition recorded in the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), stricken with plague by divine injunction. Their cruelty and insensitivity to one another, and their jealous suspicion of one another, discredited their work as students of one of the greatest Sages in Jewish history.

On the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the plague was lifted. This day is called Lag Ba'Omer, Lag being the pronunciation of the two Hebrew letters whose numeric equivalent is 33, lamed (30) and gimel (3). The period of counting is treated as period of solemnity and mourning and thus the mourning practice of not cutting one's hair is observed. This is why I currently look like Bigfoot, or at least like George Harrison on the cover of Let it Be. I didn't think to get a haircut before Passover.

But in recognition of Lag Ba-omer and the lifting of the plague, haircuts are permitted. So I am waiting for tomorrow morning (thus, 33 and a third) so I can clean up a bit.

Some resources for the counting of the omer:

Wikipedia's entry on Lag Ba'omer
A take on relating the Sefirot to the attributes to be cultivated in each of the days of the counting.
The counting of the Homer

A Shameful Speech by the President?

President Bush's speech before the Israeli Kenesset on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary compared those who would hold talks with dangerous enemies in our own day to the appeasers of the Nazis before World War II. What was otherwise a nice rhetorical moment for the President, with some moving reflections on Israeli history raises some deeply troubling issues.

A New York Times editorial makes a good point: Bush almost certainly knew that the Israelis would, just days later, open talks with Syria (and of course, Israel is indirectly speaking with Hamas through Egypt). If he did in fact know about the Israeli-Syrian plans (and it is hard to believe, but possible, that he did not), that would mean that he stood before those responsible for Israel's fate and who bear its history, and lectured them about the Holocaust. Certainly the Holocaust is a tragedy about which every human being, Jewish or not, is free to try to understand, dissect, and hold an opinion on its meaning and causes. But to lecture Israel, a state that rose from the ashes of Europe's death camps, that a path it has chosen is a moral betrayal of its own past? That is chutzpah, and it would be a funny case-example of the word in Yiddish dictionaries were it not so disturbing. *[see note at bottom of post]

As troubling was the President's use of the word "appeasement" to compare those who would hold talks with enemies today (White House aides have acknowledged that he was speaking about Obama - in spite of official denials - and now it seems that he was, unbelievably, speaking about Israel's leaders) to those who held faith in "the false comfort of appeasement."

As several commentators have pointed out, though, appeasement, as it is usually used in reference to the build up to World War II, refers to the giving of substantial concessions to the enemy in exchange for peace. The most famous example, which Mr. Bush did not cite, is of course Neville Chamberlain, who in the 1938 Munich Agreement conceded to Hitler the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. This left the country's economic core open to quick attack by the Nazi military. Chamberlain, however, thought that he had found a way to create "peace in our time," as he put it. Oops.

The danger of appeasement, then, is not simply sitting down with one's enemies. It is the act of making substantial concessions, such as strategically vital parts of countries.

With so much at stake we cannot afford to so abuse history and use ignominious catchphrases based in a shallow understanding of our past.

[According to the official White House transcipt, there was applause in the Knesset at this line. I am puzzled by this. I can think of two explanations. First, that the applause came from those in the Knesset that agree that any talks are harmful; Second, that the applause was in response to the President's criticism of appeasement, though the applauders may not have agreed with Bush's definition of appeasement. This seems more likely, since Israel has always been interested in negotiating (and even giving away land - see the Camp David Accords), and its new Syria policy is yet another example of this tendency].

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Soulfood: All You Can Eat for Your Inner Heeb

Gavriel Goldfedder and I have started a project called Soulfood: All You Can Eat For Your Inner Heeb. The idea is to reach out to Jews in their 20s and 30s by bringing to Boulder people who are creatively expressing and exploring aspects of Jewish culture and identity.

Our first gig: May 26th at 9pm, Y-Love, Chasidic hip-hop revolutionary, playing with Boulder's Motet Trio at B Side Lounge (formerly Trilogy), 2017 13th St. in Boulder. Show is $8.

In June we will likely welcome Adam Mansbach, author of End of the Jews, and Angry Black White Boy to discuss his work in the context of Jewish identity. The deal is not final, but I spoke with Mr. Mansbach today - he's interested, we're interested and it looks likely to happen.

Join us for an amazing evening of great music and good people for Y-Love on May 26th.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gone So Long I'm Glad to be Back

It's been a while and I've missed writing. I'm back.

A couple of new posts - see my comments on the Torah portion below this post.

I've just watched the Christopher Hitchens and Shmuley Boteach debate from a few months ago. Hitchens eviscerates Boteach, who tries to defend a kind of Orthodox literalism. He is not able to match Hitchens' arguments.

Hitchens, for his part, errs in too often missing the essential feature of Judaism. He constantly derides the "primitive" and "barbaric" laws of the Torah. But Judaism is a living tradition, in which revelation is enduring and eternal, in which Sinai is encountered every day. The laws of the Torah as lived by Jews cannot be comprehended by a glance at the King James Bible. Each generation draws the water of Torah through the generations and its meaning changes radically.
To be fair, Hitchens does also attack aspects of the tradition, such as circumcision, that are still very much alive. Anyway, see for yourself:

Torah Portion: Behar - Land for Peace

With that attention-grabbing title, I ask for your indulgence in writing about last week's Torah portion. This week's is B'chukotai, but my thoughts are all about Behar (which means "on the mountain.")

The parshah mandates the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee. God commands that every seven years the earth lie fallow - enjoy a Shabbat, or in English a Sabbatical - and be free from cultivation. Every fiftieth year is the Yoveil, or Jubilee, in which land is returned to its original owners. The underlying basis for these restrictions on how owners can treat the land is that God is the true owner, and human beings are merely "resident aliens" who must not fall under the illusion that the land belongs to us. This sounds like a paen to Gaia whose recitation should precede our prancing around in the forest with drums - but it's from the Torah.

There is a debate between Rashi and Ramban as to the purpose of the Sabbatical year. Rashi argues that the instruction that the Sabbatical year is a Sabbath to Adonai indicates that its observance is in order to glorify God, just as Shabbat (i.e. the Seventh day) is observed, as Exodus 20:9 tells us with the same language - a Shabbat to Adonai - to draw attention to the divine majesty governing the universe.

Translation: we observe the weekly Shabbat and the seven-yearly Shabbat to raise our consciousness and the consciousness of humanity regarding our place in the universe. It repositions us, reminding us of our puniness, and God's greatness, and the fact that we are temporary residents on this physical space created by a force that exceeds our capacity to comprehend.

Ramban is ready to throw down on this one. He points out that Rashi is out on a limb here, as the Sages (the early rabbinic sources) argued that it is instead for a very concrete human benefit: on that day we are to rest and hold back from the performance of labor. In this we imitate God, who, after the creation of the world, Shabbat vayinafash, ceased and rested, on the seventh day. The same is true, the Sages said with the Sabbatical year: it forces us to rest.

On the other hand, as Topel would say.... Rashi's and Ramban's readings work best together. The observance of Shabbat and of the Shabbat of Years both raises our consciousness and restores our bodies. In each case, the mitzvah draws our attention to our createdness and contingency and the divine energy coursing through the universe in whose presence we we continually stand. And in each case, too, the individual and the society are commanded to cease and delight in the fact of their being. Not to benefit from their striving, achieving, laboring, and acquiring - but to simply be.

We might look at all of the mitzvoth in this way. They draw our attention to our orientation in the universe and our presence before that which is beyond our comprehension. And they also serve to elevate us, enrich us, and enoble us. Our spiritual and bodily restoration leads us to a kind of wholeness - shleimut - and peace - shalom.

The Sabbatical Year also carries a radical social and ecological message. It is not simply for individual satisfaction. In the Jubilee year workers are freed from their contracts and are allowed to return to their achuzah, their landholdings. The law underscored, then, a recognition of radical and profound human equality. As Ibn Ezra comments, in the Sabbatical year the ordinary socio-economic relations are dissolved and revealed to be only temporary human constructions: You may continue to gather from the land, but
you cannot do so as would an owner. All shall be equal in [the Sabbatical year], you, your hired laborer, and your resident alien.
What did he mean? In the seventh year, when natural processes continue to bring some portion of harvest, the "owner" of the land has no more right to the growth than do other people. Suddenly what was owned becomes wholly (holy?) public and it can be gathered by all, with the owner prevented from making any special claim on the land. The mitzvah, then, was aimed at individual peace and social peace.

Finally, an ecological, or rather human-ecological peace was created by this year. The land is entitled to its own Shabbat, reminding us that we are among creation, a part of a creation that must function and prosper independently of our own needs. The land has, as it were, its own relationship to the Divine. Adam and Eve are told in Genesis to "till" and "tend" the land, to steward over it. Here we are forced to acknowledge the limitations of our capacity to exploit the natural world. Inscribed in time is a limit to our own exploits, a command that we perfect our relationship to the world we inhabit and take stock of our place in it and its majesty. Here, too, peace.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tonight.

I've just attended a service at the Conservative shul Bonai Shalom here in Boulder with all of the Boulder Rabbis and Jews (and non-Jews) from across the city. It was emotionally exhausting and also very beautiful. Two survivors spoke - their faces, stories, their language, their experience and wisdom is so needed. As the last of this generation pass away, we remember that life and death hinge on memory, and that we - Jews and non-Jews - must now struggle with how to keep that memory alive.

The poem "Shema" by Primo Levi, read tonight at the service:


You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Also, see this incredible New York Times story about a sefer Torah that was saved from destruction in the Shoah.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Time Out for Fun

John Zorn and Masada - Jewish music, American music, crazy music, beautiful music:

More Ado About Nothing

Was one of the great Jewish masters of all time a confused Buddhist?

It is a truism that many adult Jews who are dissatisfied with the tradition of their upbringing turn to Buddhism. This trend gives us the felicitous word, Jewbu, which I think is probably spelled Jubu.

For the record: I don’t view JuBus, as some people do, as having betrayed Judaism. I think most of them are responding rationally to their experience, which has often been one of dry, legalistic, empty, superficial, put-me-to-sleep Judaism. If they didn’t seek something else they would be meshugge. I do wish that they might be enlightened (har har) as to the richness and stunning insight of Judaism by new teachers or new methods.

A tangent before my real topic: the JuBu phenomenon is, I think, a babyboomer phenomenon. Of course, there are Jewish buddhists my age - and I'm all for it - but my generation's Judaism is characterized not by people turning from Judaism in search of something else, but in a profusion of new Jewish expressions, a reinterpretation of Jewish culture (sometimes with the annoying Generation-X ironic distance), an intense pride in Jewish folkways and an insistence on breathing new life into them. See, for example, jewcy.com, shemspeed.com, heebmagazine.com Most of this profusion is a a reengagement with Jewish culture, and not a religious trip. Anyway, back to the matter at hand....

My last entry on the Torah Portion “Kedoshim” (see below) holds the promise that maybe Jubus are not just a 20th century phenom. Was Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who wrote so powerfully about the nothingness that underlies reality, actually a Buddhist dressed up as a Jew? Was this Chasidic master, in fact, the first Jubu?

The realization of nothingness is central to Zen Buddhist practice and Levi Yitzchak’s ideas brush up against some Buddhist principles (it’s hard to write about Zen without contradiction – can there be a Zen principle? Once it’s laid down as a precept, idea, belief or principle, it’s not really Zen…but all I have is language).

Again, Levi Yitzchak writes that we are holy in that we can become aware of our essential nothingness – “Know that you come from nothing” – and that Jewish practice (mitzvoth) raise our consciousness of the nothingness underlying our existence, and the transitory nature of our materiality.

Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese born American teacher of Zen Buddhism, and a Soto Zen priest. Does he agree with Levi Yitzchak? The Zen Temple he took over when he came to San Francisco had once been a synagogue. Hmmm…..

In his Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes,

[I]t is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form, and it has some rules, or theory, or truth in its activity…it is one existence, which has not form or color and it is always ready to take form and color. (116)

He also writes,

Without nothingness, there is no naturalness – no true being. True being comes out of nothingness, moment after moment. Nothingness is always there, and from it everything appears. But usually, forgetting all about nothingness, you behave as if you have something. (109).

There are essential differences between Judaism and Buddhism, to be sure. But it is intriguing that these two masters, separated by centuries, and writing about traditions separated by continents and history, use similar language to describe their understanding of the nature of reality.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Torah Portion: Kedoshim - Nothing's Shocking

Does slavish observance of Jewish ritual seem meaningless and low to you? You're in good company - the company of one of the great chasidic masters.

Let's be honest: any Jew who has thought about Jewish law and ritual has thought, at some point, something like: "What is the point of such an such a practice? The Torah says "Do X" and you do X? Why? For a reward? What is this adding to your life?"

Judaism can become, as we know, a checklist of behaviors: keep kosher, check; go to shul on high holy days, check; observe shabbat, check. Etcetera, ad infinitum. What's the point?

Today Rabbi Marc and I came across a mind-blowing explanation of one of the most beautiful and mysterious verses in the entire Torah. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev has a heavy take on the verse from Leviticus 19:2, which reads "You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy."

Levi Yitzchak picks up on the impossibility of the statement. How can it be that a human being can become like God in holiness? Or put differently, how can a human being become anything more than a human being?

His solution is that you become more by becoming less. Reinterpreting a passage from the Mishnah, he reminds us that we have come from nothing. Before there was anything, there was nothing - and this nothingness is an essential feature of God.

This nothingness underlies all reality. All matter, all bodies, brains, trees, money, and yes, even the Clintons, are only temporary - but underneath all this physical matter is a nothingness that is concealed from us. We think of ourselves as being made of something, as our lives and our achievements as counting for something. But Levi Yitzchak claims that all of these outward dimensions of human existence are illusions - really underlying it all is nothing.

And this is what we share with God. For God's nothingness preceded all creation - and this absence of physicality, this nothingness, is one of the features of God's holiness.

Through our physicality - actually, through the structure of the commandments, he suggests, we can raise our consciousness enough to see that we are comprised of nothingness. This nothingness is what we share with God. Thus, Be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy.

He goes further and says that observance of the commandments in a slavish fashion, when it is done simply out of fear of punishment (or for many Jews, the fear that they will stop being Jewish, or lose connection to Jewishness) is insufficient. Instead the commandments should lead us to revere the nothingness that is the true essence of all reality. The commandments are to raise our consciousness of this fundamental and humbling reality of our existence.

Can we live in this way? With a profound humility that reminds us that all being is merely an outward manifestation of a much deeper truth - to use the language of Zen, an illusion? The commandments are, for Levi Yitzchak, the path to this awareness.

More on this later.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pesach and Yom Ha-Shoah

Since Eliav’s first chirping cry announcing his arrival, the cosmos of my experience have undergone a Copernican shift. Before, the sun, planets and stars of self, family, work and friends spun in a happily balanced orbit. Now the son is at the center - Channah and I circle around in frantic rotation, changing diapers, searching for misplaced binkies, swaddling, taking late night carseat drives in search of sleep, and all the rest.

This reorientation has affected my thinking about serious issues. I write this a few weeks before Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha-Zikaron. For all of the Jewish talk about memory, I have never appreciated its seriousness until now. When Eliav is my age, the liberation of the camps will be more than 100 years in the past – as distant as we are now from the production of the first Model-T Ford. What meaning will the Shoah have for our children and grandchildren when their own elders were born a generation after it, and likely never met a survivor?

The devastation of the Shoah, on a scale unknown before or since, calls all life into question: what meaning can life have if such suffering is possible? In a shattering passage in Night, Elie Wiesel recalls that the sight of a young boy hanging on the camp gallows led someone to call out, “Where is God now?” Another answers “Here he is – he is hanging here on the gallows.”

In reflecting upon the meaning of Pesach, the Chasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Birditchev wrote of the Talmudic disagreement concerning the world’s creation: was it in the month of Tishrei, at Rosh HaShanah, or in Nisan, the month of the Exodus? He answers: the world was created in Tishrei – but it had no meaning for humanity until Nisan, when the whole world could see suffering redeemed and human life elevated. Pesach reminds us of this possibility. Yet the seder is diminished if it merely leads us to look back. The message of that past must become alive in the present.

So, too, with the Shoah. Our distance from it is a danger only if we limit its meaning to the past. We make meaning out of the unimaginable suffering – and honor those among us who lived through it – when memory changes us, and so changes the world. The Shoah must change how we view ourselves and our responsibilities in 2008, and make us into the kind of people for whom “Never Again” is not a timid wish but a determined assertion of moral courage that guides our treatment of all peoples.

Elie Wiesel’s book is framed by a father-son relationship upended by the Shoah. In our day, one generation expresses its obligation to the past and to the next generation by remembering not only with words but with deeds, and in so doing ensures the endurance of memory. Wiesel’s book is called Night, a word that summons up images of darkness. But for the Jewish people, each new day begins at night, reminding us that every period of darkness might give birth to new light, each curse might lead to blessing. We accept our obligation to let our memories be that blessing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Time Out For Fun

In honor of Rabbi Zimmerman's Pulitzer, a beautiful wish of a song. My sisters read this at Eliav's bris... The second song is great, too. This is from the movie The Last Waltz. Enjoy:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Passover Reflection

Some thoughts on Passover....

Every year we make the mistake of viewing the four children – the wise, the simple, the wicked and the one who does not know how to ask – as paradigmatic of personality types and styles of learning. We think we are challenged to offer Jewish wisdom to the beautiful array of children who need it. But in viewing the Haggadah’s four children only as children – as those other, little ones who need our help - we prove that we are in fact the fourth child: we do not know how to ask, and in fact do not know to ask. The Haggadah tells us that we are all wise, simple, wicked, and unable to ask. We can ask, and should ask, “what is this festival – to me?”

Rabbi Judah Leib Alter, known as the “S’fat Emet” ("Language of Truth") after his commentaries on the Torah, lived in the late nineteenth century. He offers a beautiful and surprising interpretation of Pesach.

He says that “on every Pesach, a Jew becomes like a new person, like the newborn child each of us was as we came out of Egypt.” There is a point within our hearts that God implanted within each of us - and it is renewed on Pesach. Our task is to expand this point of purity. This point gets covered over when we forget it and concern ourselves with what is unimportant, when we fail to act beautifully. We do forget it throughout the year, but this festival is the time when the point is renewed. Rabbi Alter says we have to protect this unchanging point from “fermentation” or change as we would dough prepared for Matzah.

In the Torah, in Exodus, we are told
“Keep the festival of matzot, because b’etzem hayom – on this very day – I brought the children of Israel from the land of Egypt.”
The phrase b’etzem hayom – this very day – can also be translated as this “inner” or “inward” day - that is, Passover is a day of inwardness. Rabbi Alter says that we are thus instructed to keep this inner point and remember it – we have to struggle through the year to remember that God implanted this purity within us. Pesach is a time, Rabbi Alter says, “that reminds us of the real reason we were created in this world – to do God’s will.”

Another word play illuminates his point. We are commanded regarding the sippur, the “telling” of the story of the exodus. Sippur can also mean shining, or brilliance (some say that the Kabbalists notion of the s’firot, from the same root, comes from this latter meaning, and was a Hebrew adaptation of the word “Saphire.”) If Sippur does mean brilliance or shining, then we might say we are commanded to let this pure point of divinity shine out at Pesach, to uncover it and renew its capacity to light our lives.

The essential point is that we are to see ourselves as if we personally were liberated from Egypt. This is not just an exercise in historical imagination. Indeed, every generation and every individual is involved in a personal y’tziat M’mitzrayim, a going out from Egypt.

In some way we are enslaved. How? We all have our own answers. But if we don’t uncover this light within us, this point of divine brilliance, we will not be able find understanding and happiness, we will fail to act with courage and beauty as we reach out to others, we will be unable to reshape according to God’s will the world in which we live.

Rabbi Alter teaches that each of us must assume responsibility, ultimately, for recovering this divine point – the Exodus is personal. It is also collective – we struggle away from Egypt as a beautiful and blessed family, as part of a people, part of a community, striving to recover the purest point within us.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bob Dylan Wins a Pulitzer

Well, sort of. Jewish boy from Minnesota makes good.

We All Have Our Demons

Something strange about me: my clothing disintegrates. Sometime over the last year I noticed a tear in my shirt. No big deal; mass produced, low quality, money-saver. It happens. Then another was stained. Then another. Then the shirt I wore to my ordination ceremony developed a tear/hole in the chest a week after I bought it. Then my favorite shirt ripped at the button. And now another shirt - not a favorite, but a solid, war-horse shirt I use often - developed a tear/hole in the same place.

There were two possibilities. Bad luck, or sloppiness. Or so I thought. I had let the matter drop, until the Talmud (Berachot 5b) enlightened me as to the source of my troubles:

Aba Binyamin says “If [we were able] to see, no creature could endure on account of demons [that are around us]” [i.e. we would be so frightened at what we saw that we would expire]...Rav Huna said, "Each one of us has a thousand to his left and thousands to his right.." Rava said, “That pressing [feeling] at public lectures is because of them...those clothes of our rabbis that wear out is because of their rubbing are because of them.

Brief summary: 1) There are demons 2) They are the cause of certain annoyances 3) Among these is the quick deterioration of the clothing of rabbis/rabbinic students.

Why do I share this? It is a good reminder of the massive gulf that separates us from the Jewish past. We read the reflections of our forbears written 1000, 2000 or more years ago and try to relate our beliefs about God to their own.

And then we come across something like demons wearing down our clothes and we think, "Oh...the guy who believes that God punishes people who light fire on Shabbat is the same guy who believes that demons tear holes in my shirt."

So, why bother? Why try to accept Biblical, or Talmudic ideas about God? Maybe we should just treat them like we do the Demons-are-eating-my-clothes theory, and say "That's hilarious. And I reject it completely.

Why should religious belief be less prone to the ravages of time than strange superstitions? In another 1000 years, will the notion of God seems as ludicrous to our descendants as clothing-demons do to us?

But it is precisely these demons that keeps me at it. It is precisely the strange and uncomfortable that makes me more determined to find something to which I can relate. The animal sacrifices; the tabernacle; the goat which bears the sins of the community into the wilderness (the scapegoat); demons eating my clothing. These all speak to our historical situatedness and the contingency of our experience. Each generation creates a worldview that is impermeable to the inquiries of those who come later (what will our demons be, the ludicrous habits about which those after us will puzzle? Wave/particle duality? Kellogg's French Toaster Sticks?

The strange particulars of people at various points in history lead me to seek what is familiar and universal. My view of the deep-structure of the universe and of human being's relation to the divine is not confirmed by its similarity to the beliefs of those who share all of my assumptions. On the contrary. Only if I can verify that someone who believed in demons (and that they could be seen by grinding up the burnt placenta of a black cat and rubbing it in your eye - I'm not making that up) also shared my experience of what it means to contemplate God, to relate to the biggest questions we face, can I be sure that my beliefs have a grounding in the universal. It is the differences between us that make it possible to believe that, on a deep level, we have something in common.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is rightly remembered for his legacy of racial reconciliation. We often have forgotten that for him 'reconciliation,' meant tough moral commitments and radical social change. So, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and two speeches which remind us that he was broadening the struggle to force Americans confront the problem of economic inequality when he was cut down:


Time Out for Fun

The incredible Nina Simone singing Eretz Chalav u'devash (Land of Milk and Honey).

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Torah Portion, Tazria II: Holy Mouldy

Well, sort of.

In my previous post, which you should now have committed to memory, I mentioned that in the Torah there is both ritual and moral purity/impurity. We can probably all get our minds around moral purity: the idea that if we do something immoral we are somehow tarnished. Maybe you think that belief involves an unhealthy level of repression, but at least you understand it.

Ritual impurity in the Torah is a bit more far out. If a person comes into contact with a defiling substance they become ritually tamei (impure). They must maintain separation from things that are holy until they become tahor (pure) by being declared so by a priest. And impurity can even grow (like mould) on the structure of a building or on clothing.

We may occasionally get the feeling that someone has done something so morally questionable that being in their presence makes us say "I have to take a shower." Examples of this include close contact with car salesmen (I can say this because I was a car salesman one summer) or encountering a particularly awful moment of political desperation such as when Hillary Clinton tried to scrap together some votes by running an adsuggesting that the nation's children would be in danger if she were not elected President (I can say this because I had to take a shower after seeing that ad).

But this is just a response to the heebie-jeebies (and I do mean heebie). In the Torah, though, certain materials (such as a corpse, emissions from sexual organs, and the skin irregularities described in this week's portion) actually render a person incapable of attaining holiness until
the individual has been purified.

How can holiness be compromised by the material (as opposed to the moral)? The idea seems strange to us because in our scientific era, all matter is understood to be essentially the same. It may look different, and some matter may cause illness in humans, but under the surface, if you get to the electro-magnetic core of things, it's all just protons, neutrons, electrons, atoms and molecules.

So, skin disease, contact with a corpse, or emissions from the body are the things that cause ritual impurity. In the scientific world view they do not diminish us: that would be absurd. They are merely various kinds of matter coming into contact with other matter - there is no meaning to these encounters.

Each of these three things might alienate us from our bodies. They are all irregularities that disrupt our capacity to look beyond ourselves. The bodily emissions are things that are tied to birth - seminal emissions from the man, or afterbirth and post-partum discharges from the woman. The miracle of birth draws attention to our ability to create - but also the raw materiality of our existence. While we may be amazed at the birth, parents also become more aware of their finitude. Contact with a corpse may shock us into a meditation on death. And irregularities and bodily deformities are stark reminders of our body's delicate nature.

Some commentators have pointed out that these ritual impurities center around death and life, and draw our attention to these things. Because God is eternal, God neither lives nor dies, remaining at once within the material of the universe and totally apart from it. God - the essence and source of holiness - has no spirit/material divide. Perhaps the moments that make us more aware of the gulf between what is eternal and what is finite about us we distance ourselves from God.

Eliav cries....gotta run