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)

Friday, December 24, 2010

All You Need is Ahavah

The Ways of the Tzaddikim identifies Love as such an important middah that it

includes more acts than any of the other [middot], and when one employ's [one's] love for good, it is the highest of all the [middot]...

I want to point to one troubling passage and one fascinating passage in the chapter on Love.

First, the troubling. In describing the dangers of love that is not informed by wisdom, the text refers to ahavat nashim, love of women, as being a danger. All of the attitudes we might expect of a text written in the 16th century manifest here: a woman has the capacity to morally destroy a man; women lead men to "fornication" and "lewdness." In the passage describing the benefits of harmonious love, the text states that in a proper relationship

she keeps him from promiscuity, through her he fulfills the mitzvah of having children, she rears his children...she serves him all of her days, preparing his meals and looking after the other household needs, thus freeing him to study Torah and to perform mitzvos.
One wonders whether some essence can be derived from this that allows us to apply it to a loving relationship between adults. It is not at all clear that this can be "gender neutralized" so to speak - it may be inextricable from its patriarchal views.

I do think there is a larger point to be made about a balanced love between adults. We'll try to explore that territory in the next class.

The fascinating part is the passage about Olam Ha-Ba (page 110-111 in the Feldheim edition). Notice that his description of the World to Come in this passage is not at all mystical or mysterious: it is ethical. This jibes perfectly with Rabbi Stone's rather obscure argument in A Responsible Life.

Time Out For Fun - Terrapin Station

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands in one of their best years. Grateful Dead, Terrapin Station, 4/27/77. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rational, Animal

Aristotle defined humans as "the rational animal." I'm thinking a lot about rationality these days because one of the primary assumptions of mussar is that we are controlled by irrational impulses that are deeply resistant to conscious, rational attempts to overcome them. The class this week (Thursday night, at Har HaShem) will explore the idea of the unconscious as described in the writing of Rabbi Israel Salanter and Sigmund Freud. Musar is a method for understanding the place of these unconscious drives in our personality and actions and then rehabituating the spirit to overcome (repress?) them.

In any event, a fascinating article in this week's New Yorker (abstract here) had a particular resonance because of my thinking about these things. Lehrer reflects on a recent movement among a small number of scientists in various fields who are raising questions about the use of the scientific method.

Neither the mussar writing nor the article point toward the conclusion that rationality is hopelessly lost. Merely that it is much more elusive than we think.

Time Out For Fun - Late to the Lennon Tribute Edition, Part II

Beautiful, beautiful song:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Time Out For Fun - Late to the Lennon Tribute Edition

I haven't done a "Time Out for Fun" in a bit, and I'm late on observing the anniversary of Lennon's death (12/8/80), but here it is. What can you even say in remembering John Lennon? Any one song is ludicrously insufficient to capture his impact on music; and even all of his music posted simultaneously wouldn't get as his cultural impact. In any event, "I Dig A Pony," a great and underrated Lennon tune. A bit of a throwaway for him, I'm sure, but a great tune:

The World to Come

Chevruta study links us with another person and so creates the future.

In Chapter Seven of Rabbi Stone's A Responsible Life, which we are reading in my 613 Habits of Highly Effective People class, a new and surprising understanding of Olam HaZeh and Olam HaBa appears. I want to summarize this dense chapter here for those in the class but I will do so by addressing the topics of present, future and past in a different order. Interspersed with the summary are my own interpretations of Rabbi Stone's ideas.

The past is pure spirituality. That is, it is not material - we can't touch it. Nonetheless, it is more than memory because it has a real effect on our lives. It shapes us. What makes the past Torah is the extent to which that shaping of our lives is purposeful. A whole series of events in the past may affect my life, but those might just be a collection of random experiences that have no purpose. But the Torah, the revelation, of the Jewish past, is trying to shape my life in a particular direction: cultural memory, the teachings of the Jewish tradition, the mitzvot, these all are trying to make me act in a certain way. The past reaches into the material world to guide it.

The present is where I exist. To exist in the present is to be conscious. Consciousness is most immediately tied to one's own experience, one's own needs. What it means to be me is to see the world through the lens of my consciousness of my own perceptions and needs. In this sense, the self is the "location" of the present.

This present is 'olam hazeh' - this world, the material world.

The present (the world of self) is interrupted by the awareness of the needs of another person, awareness of the reality of another consciousness that exists along with us. We suspend our interest in the self - we set aside the present - when we encounter another and we therefore have to look to the future to return to our self, with all of its demands on us. This is what Rabbi Stone means when he says that "waiting for another creates the future for me." If we sit and stare at our belly button, and a needy person knocks at the door looking for food, we stop staring at our belly button and think "I'll get back to that later, in the future" as we go to answer the door. That is a silly illustration of what he means.

The future is 'olam haba' - the world to come, a world that is both material (there is another physical being that causes it to exist) and yet spiritual (the process of waiting for time to pass is a spiritual experience, according to Stone).

We move between olam ha-zeh and olam ha-ba as we switch between a consciousness focused on self and a consciousness focused on others. Though orientation toward others is "responsibility" and in this sense is a burden, it is also liberating, freeing us from the unsatisfying entrapment in the prison of the present and the prison of self.

Apologies to Rabbi Stone for any possible misrepresentations of his ideas that may appear in this post.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chevrutah, Part II

Some of you in my mussar class (The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People) are pressing against the limits of chevruta. You wonder about the propriety of moving beyond the text of the class to the personal, you are afraid to do so. I wrote previously that chevruta study should not be limited to the text (nor can it be free of the text) that you are studying. It must include reflections from your own life and tales from your own experience.

But in our society, so focused around the sanctity of private space, sharing deeply emotional experiences is unusual - and even "impolite." But Torah is illuminated when lived experience confronts tradition and each informs the other. What prevents us from opening to others in this way? Why do we cover up - and what are we covering up?

We follow in these weeks the story of Joseph. Throughout the story Joseph is covered up and then revealed. His famous katonet pasim, the "technicolor dreamcoat" is a source of his brother's envy. They strip it off of him. In the house of Potiphar, his refuge in Egypt, Potiphar's wife strips Joseph's clothes off of him. Eventually he will be dressed in the clothes of an Egyptian nobleman and his brothers will not recognize him.

This cycle of enrobement and revelation has its emotional counterpart this week, in Parshat Vayigash. Judah, unaware that he is speaking to the brother that he nearly killed, pleads with Joseph to have mercy on the brothers. Finally, Joseph "was no longer able to hold back" and bursts into tears. "I am Joseph" he reveals.

The Sefat Emet points out that this is preceded by Judah's speech, which begins "Judah approached him" (Gen 44.18). He writes

The 'him' here refers to Joseph, to Judah's own self, and also to God. The meaning is as follows: Judah offered nothing new in his words [that is, there was no argument here that the brother's had not previously made to Joseph] nor did he have a good claim with which to approach Joseph. But as he clarified the truth of the matter, salvation came to him. 'Truth grows from the earth' (Ps 85.12).
The Sefat Emet suggests that in Judah's approaching Joseph there was immense power. The act of reaching out beyond the boundary of self was revelatory. It cut through Joseph's pretense so that he could no longer be false and v'hitapek, "he could no longer hold back." Joseph's reaction is to finally reveal the truth, "I am Joseph."

But the Sefat Emet is also pointing out to us that this psychological unveiling is at the same time a spiritual revelation. He renders the verse as "Judah approached God." As Judah reaches across the boundary of self, cuts through the cloak of concealment and defense he also reaches across the boundary of the material into the divine within himself and his brother.

I want to suggest the chevruta learning has the same potential. We can cut through the falsity and pretense that we use to get through the business of everyday life in these moments. There is nothing inherently bad about our initial reluctance to reveal something real from our own experience. We need these garments of self and identity in order to function in the world.

But two souls revealing something more true beneath the veil have the ability to uncover great truth and to access the deeper divinity that is trying to reveal itself - that source of divinity that is trying to make itself manifest through the process of self-examination and teshuvah that is part of mussar.

But it starts with one of the two people in the chevruta "approaching" first - just as Judah had the courage to do.

Nietzsche is Dead, part II

I pointed in the last post on this topic to an article from nytimes.com about religion in the modern world. The article points out that the truth claims of religion have been limited by modernity.

I see two points in the article. First, in modern, diverse democracies, multiple truths are accepted as legitimate. In the absence of any broad shared Truth (capital T truth) we use tolerance as a way to live together. In the good old days, we could condemn a heretic because they rejected a truth that was universally accepted. In the more complicated modern world no one has the authority to say that someone's take on Truth is wrong. This is the 'practical' problem of religion in modern society - our diverse society just can't function without a very broad and deep tolerance of multiple Truth systems.

Is anyone still reading? The second limit on religious truth claims in the modern world is not practical but substantive: science and history have decimated traditional religious views, at least in the realm of the 'revealed' religions.

These are two distinct problems and I won't deal with either of them here! I will deal with them both eventually.

Let me just say two things: first, I don't have a definitive answer to these problems. I struggle with this essential problem often, constantly, but I have been unable to resolve it in a way that the philosophically trained part of me finds satisfactory.

Ultimately the part of me that continues to need and affirm my relationship to the Holy One simply trumps my philosophical impulses. To those reading (?) who are inclined toward rationalism - or rather those whose rationalism is totalizing - that will sound ludicrous. And I can actually empathize with, I can inhabit, that view.

I feel very much of two minds. It is as though there are two distinct consciousnesses within me that really should not be able to live together but do. And their cohabitation (!) is not due to their harmony. It is due ultimately to my emunah that there is something true but unresolved in their cohabitation.

Ultimately I believe that this philosophically trained part of me is blind so something that is more elemental and true. What that is, and why that is, cannot, by necessity, be explained rationally. Nor can I convince anyone of it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nietzsche is Dead, and We Have Killed Him

Great article in the New York Times online "The Stone" section, which deals with philosophical issues as they pertain to contemporary culture. The author is Sean Kelly of Harvard's Philosophy Department.

He writes about whether it is possible, in an era when belief in God is no longer central to the culture's claims about truth, to have a religious belief with integrity.

One can imagine a happy suburban member of a religious congregation who, in addition to finding fulfillment for herself in her lofty and ennobling religious pursuits, experiences the aspiration to this kind of fulfillment as one demanded of all other human beings as well. Indeed, one can imagine that the kind of fulfillment she experiences through her own religious commitments depends upon her experiencing those commitments as universal, and therefore depends upon her experiencing those people not living in the fold of her church as somehow living depleted or unfulfilled lives. I suppose this is not an impossible case. But if this is the kind of fulfillment one achieves through one’s happy suburban religious pursuit, then in our culture today it is self-deception at best and fanaticism at worst. For it stands in constant tension with the demand in the culture to recognize that those who don’t share your religious commitments might nevertheless be living admirable lives. There is therefore a kind of happiness in a suburban life like this. But its continuation depends upon deceiving oneself about the role that any kind of religious commitment can now play in grounding the meanings for a life.

This is the tension for the modern religious person. I wonder about his premise in this passage, though. Does it have to be the case that a person who experiences the hold of God in her life sees those without that experience as living diminished or "untrue" lives? Is there such a thing as religious humility?

More on this later...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Found a Chevruta Partner - Now What?

In response to some queries about how chevruta should work, I want to post some thoughts on how you might approach this powerful Jewish learning methodology.

Both partners should arrive at the learning session having read the text.

Both partners should bring a copy of the text they are studying. Trade off reading out loud to one another, one bit at a time. Sometimes this bit will be a whole paragraph, sometimes just a sentence, and sometimes even just a word. It depends on what you find in it.

After you've read the paragraph or sentence, go back over it to make sure you've understood the most basic meaning. What is the author saying?

If you are the kind of person who is quite shy, make sure you are contributing to the conversation. If you are the kind of person who loves to talk and is brimming over with thoughts about the text, make sure you make plenty of space in the conversation for your partner to participate.

Keep in mind that every person has something unique to bring to the text. If you hold back your insights, or if you prevent your partner from participating, you are silencing the insights, culled from a lifetime of experience of being a human, that are waiting to come out.

What are your reactions to the text? Do you agree with it? Does it resonate with other things you believe? Do you disagree? Why? How does one paragraph connect to the next - is there an argument that is being built? What are the assumptions of the text? What assertions about human nature are being made? What assertions about God are being made?

What are your emotional responses to the text (this may not always apply, of course)? Chevruta study doesn't have to be a mere intellectual exchange. If you find your anger swelling at a certain passage, or if you are particularly moved by a particular passage, that's important. Delve deeper to find out what about the passage is hitting you so hard.

The conversation should be informed by your life experience. The conversation should absolutely drift from the text at times so you or your partner can "open up" or clarify a certain passage with insights from personal experience. How far afield you run will depend on your judgment, and your partner's, as to how valuable the conversation is. However, you should avoid the temptation to read one paragraph and then have it become a schmooze session. Make time to schmooze afterward. Make sure you return to the text.

Don't feel that the primary purpose is to get through the entire chapter. All things being equal, if you have enough time, or if you are meeting more than once between classes, this is the best thing. But if you are rushing through the text just to finish, you are shutting down all the best parts of the conversation. At the same time, if you only cover one paragraph in the session, you won't really have a chance to engage with the work.

It is 'ok' not to agree with the text. Keep in mind that Orchot Tzaddikim is 550 years old! You need to avoid simply giving up on the text. This wouldn't be giving kavod to this teaching which has touched so many lives.

Make notes about the parts that bother you. There can often be great insights that emerge from disagreeing with a passage if you can be patient enough to stick with the text and explore where it is coming from and then articulate where you are coming from.

You and your partner may disagree about the value of a passage, or even about its meaning. It is important to explore those disagreements. But do so with a sense of respect and humility. The point of chevruta is very much NOT to convince the other person that they are wrong. I would expect that many disagreements will simply be left unresolved.

Your book should look messy with pencil marks, underlines, marginal notes, and questions when you are done.

There are some further resources here.

Mussar Resources

I promised to post some online mussar resources. Here they are. These might be helpful for those who need to delve further into the middah that they have chosen (of course, these may also be useful for the middah - currently anavah, or humility - that the class is working on together).

Your individual middah may or may not be covered by the resources below. If you cannot find resources on your middah, please send me an email so we can find out how to connect you with the teachings you need.

1) http://www.mussarleadership.org/ This is the website of Rabbi Ira Stone, whose book, "A Responsible Life," we are reading in the class.

Go to "Mussar Pathways" along the top menu; select "Middot" and then choose one of the middot. For many but not all of these, Rabbi Stone has written an essay exploring the topic in some depth.

2) Alan Morinis' Mussar Institute lists some online English mussar classics. Please let me know if you want to pursue this route so I can aid you in your learning. The links are at http://www.mussarinstitute.org/wisdom-way.htm

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Within You Without You

There are two tensions in the practice of Mussar that are important for us to talk about.

First is the tension between the physical and spiritual dimensions of change. We can change our behavior but not go the next step of transforming ourselves internally. For example, a person might be trying to become more generous (in relationships, with money, etc). Through mussar practice, one could be trained in a kind of Pavlovian way, to perform the right actions. So, you make it a habit to give money, you make it a habit to make sure that people you are in relationship with are taken care of. Yet, internally, your spirit is in rebellion against this and constantly resenting your giving, dubious about the needs of others versus your own needs. This is not the goal of mussar. We are striving to change internally as well - though this may begin with reluctant acts in the physical world. Ultimately, mussar practice is pointing to a higher consciousness, toward a unity underlying all physical existence, so that the practitioner becomes more aware of this deeper reality and more willing, therefore, with the ethical dictates that flow from it.

The second tension is between an awareness of one's flaws and a sense of magnificent spiritual potential within each individual. Mussar practice begins with a very deep sense of self-awareness. The self-aware person will see the many shortcomings, missed opportunities, wasted time, selfish and cruel acts, misguided strivings, etc, etc, that is at the heart of so much of our time here. This self-awareness can lead to a sense of shame and a very low and dejected spirit. If this low state persists, it will become impossible to ascend to the next level - we can't lift ourselves up if we are always focused on our shameful character. The Aish Kodesh (I'm on a big Aish Kodesh trip right now and you will continue to hear much about him in the coming weeks) writes about the impossibility of drawing down Torah from heaven when we are in such a debased state. It becomes impossible to access and draw out the divine potential that is within us if we are blinded to it.

The answer is of course not to try to lower of our self-awareness - ultimately our ability to transcend our current state hinges on our capacity to see a brilliant light within ourselves. The challenge is to see ourselves as complex beings who have a deep core of holiness but who are guided away from that and are led to be out of touch with that. Rav Simchah Bunam famously taught that we should have in one pocket a note that says "I am but dust and ashes" and in the other pocket a note that says "For my sake the world was created." The trick is to know when to reach for each one.

Finally, the lyrics to George Harrison's "Within You Without You" are either terribly insightful, or just ludicrous. But the title fits here, and it's a great song:

We were talking-about the space between us all
And the people-who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth-then it's far too late-when they pass away.
We were talking-about the love we all could share-when we find it
To try our best to hold it there-with our love
With our love-we could save the world-if they only knew.
Try to realize it's all within yourself
No-one else can make you change
And to see you're really only very small,
And life flows ON within you and without you.
We were talking-about the love that's gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul-
They don't know-they can't see-are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself-then you may find, peace of mind,
Is waiting there-
And the time will come when you see
we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lashon Ha-Ra no.3: Last Words on Lashon HaRa

1) Please share your thoughts on the relationship between Lashon HaRa and idolatry in the comments section below.

2) I want to relate a story about the Chofetz Chayim (see previous post). It is suspiciously similar to a story about Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk that ends quite differently.

He was travelling on a train to another town, inconspicuous in simple garb. On the train he encountered a Jew and they be began to talk. After some time, the Chofetz Chayim asked him where he was going and he answered that he had heard that Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chayim, would be teaching in such and such a town, and he was going to hear this luminary among this generation, this incredibly pious and brilliant scholar.

"I know him," the Chofetz Chayim responds. "He's not so great." Outraged, the Jew slapped him. "How dare you speak in this way about such a Torah scholar!" They parted ways.

Later the man goes to see the Chofetz Chayim teach and, of course, recognizes him. Horrified, he approaches the Chofetz Chayim and apologizes profusely.

"Please, don't worry," says the Chofetz Chayim. "You taught me a great lesson. I knew, of course, that it is a great sin to speak lashon ha-ra about another person. But I did not know that it was also a great sin to speak lashon ha-ra against yourself."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lashon Ha-Ra no.2: The Word on Bad Speech

For those who want to pursue learning on Lashon HaRa, the main source would be Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chayim, after the title of his book about Lashon Ha-Ra.

Monday, November 15, 2010

613 Habits - Lashon Ha Ra #1

This is the first of what will be several entries connected to my class, "The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People: Get Over Your Self." I am teaching about the spiritual discipline of mussar. The class will draw on several primary sources from the tradition, but principally is based on Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous) and Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright). We will also use Rabbi Ira Stone's "A Responsible Life."

In this month's reading, "Sha'ar Lashon Ha-ra," which is translated by Rabbi Silverstein as "The Gate of Slander," there is a puzzling observation in the second (English) paragraph. The text reads,

Certainly, one who is given to slander removes from himself the yoke of Heaven, for he sins without pleasure and is worse than a thief or an adulterer, who pursue pleasure (Shochar Tov 120:3).
First of all, the "yoke of Heaven," (ol shamayim). This phrase denotes the acceptance of the obligation to live in accordance with the Divine will. The image seems to be one of a painful burden and when we read it we might say, "What am I, an ox? What a drag (pun intended)." If you allow the image to play out you might see it as more meaningful and beautiful. One of the reasons an animal carries a yoke is to pull a plow behind it. The plow digs into the earth to make possible the planting of seeds that will ultimately grow into something beneficial. We uphold the Torah because our goal is to turn the fallow fields of earthly life into something that is abundant with life and sustenance.

What about this idea that this is a more serious sin because we don't derive pleasure from it? I don't actually accept the premise. One of the reasons that lashon ha-ra is so easy to do is that it brings immense pleasure to the one who speaks it. Part of the pleasure is taking the person down a notch or too, perhaps satisfying some deep insecurity we have. That we satisfy this insecurity by our worst impulses (dragging someone down) rather than with our best (elevating ourselves) is one of the signals of the harm of lashon ha-ra: we damage ourselves in the process (as the Talmud says in Arachin 15b, "Lashon ha ra kills three people: The one who speaks it, the one who hears it and the one about whom it is spoken").

There is another pleasure in lashon ha-ra, and our desire for it actually stems from holiness: lashon hara creates solidarity between the speaker and the listener. There is a kind of warmth, the comfort of a bond between one person confiding something that is mutually morally repugnant to another person. This desire for connection and sympathy with others is essential to human holiness, but of course this particular expression of that desire is evil.

The Aish Kodesh writes that every thought, desire and deed that we have can be revealed to have at its core a dimension of holiness. Even within an act as ugly as lashon ha ra is the potential for holiness to be revealed. Lashon Ha-ra is an ugly garment covering, as it were, a light of holiness. While the teshuvah (repentance) that we must do begins by refraining from lashon ha-ra and making a good faith effort to undo damage that we have caused, it should also include an examination of the desire for holiness, warped as it may have been, that might have been at its core.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Does Hitch Pray?

The great Christopher Hitchens, with whom I do not always agree but from whom I always learn something, has cancer. There has been an interesting online debate recently about whether it is proper to pray for this evangelizing atheist.

In this video from the Atlantic he speaks with Jeffrey Goldberg about illness, atheism, agnosticism and prayer. Martin Amis joins in for a bit.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gay Marriage Decision: A Victory for Jews

I can't make any comments on the legal thinking that went into the Prop 8 decision - some supporters of gay marriage are saying it was a bad decision because its breadth makes it an easy target for Supreme Court conservatives.

However, I do think that Jews should be happy with the outcome. Why? Because the only arguments against gay people marrying are arguments grounded in religion. Wha? Judaism is a religion, so we agree with them, right? Wrong.

While certainly there are many Jews who feel that the Torah calls on them to oppose loving intimate relationships between members of the same sex, that is not really the point (the Orthodox Union supported Prop 8). If we could have the state of Colorado enforce the laws of Shabbat as described in the Torah would we want that? Of course not, because we accept the principal of separation of church and state - we wouldn't want that any more than we would want the state to force people to observe Christian holidays.

And this is why even those Jews who consider themselves religiously bound to oppose gay relationships should celebrate. It is a victory for value-neutral secular law. That is good because it permits us to practice our religion, and permits our neighbors to practice theirs, but is doesn't allow us to force our views on them and visa versa.

If you have any doubts about who has the most at stake in the anti-gay marriage side, look no further than the Alliance Defense Fund. Their lawyers are litigating the case. Their website describes them as a "servant organization that provides the resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values." The first two lines of their "Statement of Faith": "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word of God. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Do I want these people making laws about what kind of society I can live in? No more than I want the Orthodox Union to.

In a religiously diverse society, doesn't it make sense to have religiously-neutral laws that are non-coercive. Let's agree that no one should force anyone into a gay marriage - if you don't want one, don't have one. And no one should stop anyone else from having a gay marriage. Doesn't that allow for harmony in a diverse society?

And isn't it dangerous for Jews to support anti-democratic, religiously grounded arguments while living in a society that is 98% non Jewish?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mosque at Ground Zero

It looks like the mosque to be built near the WTC site will go ahead. I think this is an excellent turn of events.

I was astonished to find the ADL's Abe Foxman on the wrong side of this issue. It seems to me that the only grounds for opposing the mosque is the charge that one of the supporters of the mosque is CAIR, which has been accused of having links to terrorist organizations. Those accusations don't appear to have much credibility. Foxman's argument, however, does not rest on links to CAIR (though he does allude to the need for more information about the mosque's backers) but rather on Americans sensitivity to having a mosque - apparently, any mosque - at this site. We should remember that the attack on America on 9/11 was an attack on all Americans - including on Muslim Americans.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Parshat Devarim - The Opportunity in Wilderness

Each of experiences a spiritual wilderness from time to time - we feel out of place, alienated from the very core of what we've become and who we are. There is a sense of being cast aside by our own lives and decisions - suddenly a world and way of living that felt rich and plentiful is burdensome and lifeless.

In the Torah portion this week Moses recounts the earlier episode when the Israelites, anxious that their journey will not end well, accuse God of bringing them out of slavery to die in the desert because God hates them.

The Zohar argues that this wandering into the wilderness was an opportunity. The wilderness is a place controlled by the 'sitra achra' - the forces that act against life and goodness. God prepared the journey so that Israel would have strength there and could vanquish those forces once and for all - by wanderin theough the darkness they could overcome it with internal strength. But the Israelites could only see the danger and not the opportunity.
We have to look again at these wilderness walks, their dry arid threats of danger and dissolution and disorientation, and see them not as places empty of meaning, but as places that challenge us to overcome them with internal strength. They are not wrong ways but are rather essential to our development.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Joshua Rose
3950 Baseline Road
Boulder CO 80303

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shema, Yisra'el: Being Present

In the past two weeks I have been doing a lot of sitting in front of my computer, in between diaper changing, sleeping, feeding, and tending to both children. It's led me to more Face-booking, blog-reading, headline surfing.

I've accumulated and shared a lot of information, but what's been lost in this frenetic information exchange? I'm a physical presence, but I'm barely here.

The fundamental religious challenge for me right now is, I think, to try to maintain a sense of presence in the lives of those around me - to really listen - amidst the increasingly frantic pace. But also to maintain a kind of presence and groundedness in whatever it is that I'm doing. I know that the medium is only the medium, a tool is only a tool and all that, but there's something about computers that takes us away.

On that note, goodnight...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Time Out For Fun - New Baby Version

In something I wrote in honor of Eliav's birth, I quoted this song. So, here's another go for another baby. What a hat....

Baruch Ha-Ba

Channah and I welcomed our new baby into the world on Monday morning. A beautiful, huge tiny person, great sleeper and good eater. Pretty overwhelmed right now by the shower of blessings raining down. How to become worthy of that? . So, baruch haba, in the words of the traditional welcome.

(Bradley Shavit Artson wrote a great article on the meaning of baruch. In the context of the beracahot that we say over food or events, we usually translate it as "blessed" but that raises a theological puzzle. If God is blessed, who is doing the blessing? Obviously, humans - but if we stop blessing, is God no longer blessed? Artson argues that the word actually means bountiful, or abundant. So, "You are bountiful God, the one who brings bread from the earth." In the context of Baruch Ha-Ba, which we say to welcome someone (including a new baby), "blessed" makes more sense. I can't find the article online, but for those who care, Journal of Conservative Judaism, Winter 1994).

Reb Zalman encouraged Channah and I to "coo" possible names to the baby and mark his reaction so his neshama can weigh in on the decision. So, we will choose together in advance of the bris on Monday.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tweeting the Torah

So I read online about a project to turn famous novels into Twitter messages. Twitter is a social networking and microblogging service that enables people to send 140 character messages to a list of subscribers.

So, here's the challenge: I'd love for the brave to take a crack at reducing a torah portion/book of the torah/entire torah to a tweet. 140 characters. This week's Torah portion is Terumah, Exodus 25:1 - 27:19. Give it a shot.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hope v. Fear

Extraordinarily unsettling news out of Iran, as we have all heard. And while the dangers of a tyrannical and oppressive Islamist (as opposed to simply Muslim) regime acquiring a nuclear weapon cannot be turned away by words and hope alone, William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech from 1949 inspires confidence. Hope is not enough, but any attempt to turn away such dread must be rooted in it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Wednesday night at Har HaShem - Special Event

Gergg Drinkwater from Mosaic will be at Har HaShem on Wednesday night at 6:30 to talk about his work. Come join us. Here's the blurb:

In-Queeries into Torah
February 10th, 6:30pm
Congregation Har HaShem.

Gregg Drinkwater, co founder and director of Jewish Mosaic, will be at Har HaShem Wednesday February 10th at 6:30 pm. Gregg is co-editor, with the head of CU’s Jewish Studies Department Dr. David Schneer, of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. The book is a collection of revelatory and incisive commentaries on the Torah portion from a LGBT perspective (or through a “bent lens,” as the book’s author’s write).

Gregg’s organization, Jewish Mosaic, was included three years running in “Slingshot,” a guide to “the most creative and effective [Jewish] organizations in America.” Jewish Mosaic encourages LGBT inclusion in Jewish life through advocacy, education, research and by increasing visibility of LGBT Jews in the community.

Gregg will talk about Torah Queeries and discuss how the Jewish world can be more inclusive

Rabbi Rose will participate by discussing the Jewish tradition’s perspectives on sexuality and how we can confront the tradition with our modern, egalitarian views while preserving ancient ideas about living in a holy way.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Israel Photography Trip from Boulder

I will likely lead another trip to Israel in 2011 but for those who have a particular interest in photography, Byahad Trex is leading a great trip in April.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Good Golem

Thanks to R, who sent me a great article on Professor Henry Makram's Blue Brain project to create consciousness from a computer. You can read it here.

The obvious point of reference for thinking about the meaning of artificial consciousness from a Jewish perspective is the golem. These legendary early animated non-human beings were imagined in the talmud. Significantly, they could be created only by righteous and learned rabbis. This introduces a measure of control over the animated being. Still, though, the golems that were created could wreak havoc. The presence of the world "emet" (truth) on their foreheads is significant for two reasons: one, it suggests that the being is subject to the normal laws of reality (this is my reading of this part of the legend) as we know them. Second, when the first letter of the word emet is erased, it becomes "met" (dead), and the being dies.

A good article on Golems here, Wikipedia entry here.

My tiny brain is not equipped to deal with the Jewish or ethical significance of this now real prospect. I'm going to do some reading on this over the next few months.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Economic Pressure on Israel....from the US

Interesting. George Mitchell (administration envoy for mideast peace) indicated in an interview (transcript is here) that one of the tools in the administration's belt in dealing with Israel is preventing loan guarantees.

As I've written before, I think that Israel's long-term security can only come from peace and stability - something that in my opinion its government is moving away from. Nonetheless, the administration must not use Israel's economic vulnerability against it - not good policy, not good for Israel.

If you are pro-Peace, and pro-Israel, as I am, and you think this is a good option for the US to wield, just think about how it could be used. If we go down the road of the US putting serious economic pressure on Israel, one can imagine Israel being put in a totally untenable position one day. Having to act against its security interests in order to avoid the danger of the loss of US aid.

The Administration is trying to walk it back by saying that he was taken out of context; that clearly, Mitchell was simply talking descriptively, not proscriptively, about the mechanisms that the US could use as leverage. That is, he was just saying that this was technically possible, and nothing more, in response to Rose asking him about possible options.

The transcript itself makes that pretty hard, if not impossible, to defend. My read is that he threw out there, in very careful terms, a very mild and vague warning. He even suggests – depending on how you understand his subsequent remarks – that this is something that the Administration is “discussing.” Obviously it’s not to be understood as a suggestion he’s making for US policy, but a subtle message to the Israelis, “we’re not screwing around.” I just think a guy as diplomatically experienced as Mitchell – which is to say, very – doesn’t throw around such things by accident.

What's strange is how little play this is getting in various media. I can't find anything on it from NYT or CNN. It is very big news in Israel. Reuters has a good read on the Israeli reaction here. The article notes that Israel doesn't intend to use guarantees at least for the next two years.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Time Out for Fun - Miles Davis Quintet, 1966, "Footprints."

I've rediscovered a Miles Davis album I had forgotten about: Miles Smiles. This is a live performance from one of the great combos in music.

The Tehilim (Psalms) were set to music, regal religious music. This to me feels like religious music: I like to think of them accompanying King David.

Pluralism Gone Wild

This article could have appeared in satirical pages of The Onion but it is an actual editorial that appeared this week. It is the idea of western pluralism taken to absurd extremes. If pluralism is so pluralistic that it can't place blame on axe-wielding murderers but rather on their victims, then it can't survive.

As a religious person, I would like to state for the record that I'm offended by the author's supposed defense of religion. Set aside for the moment that the term "religious people" lumps together radical terrorists and people like me. If religious people can't be expected to act rationally, to accept criticism and satire of their culture, without resorting to murderous violence, then they can't be defended.

The author's vision of the religious/secular divide would make it impossible for religion to exist in a pluralistic society. This is how pluralistic/liberal societies consume themselves and become anti-pluralistic: insisting that anti-pluralistic, anti-modern, anti-democratic violence is a legitimate political expression.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tiger, Save Yourself: Abandon Buddhism!

That's what Brit Hume, in a moment of contemplative babble, tells the world. What can one even say? Nothing, so we'll let Brit speak for himself):