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)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Got a Light?

Little Myth Thing
Chanukah begins Tuesday night. The magnificent Festival of Lights (Chag Ha-Urim) is a beautiful, inspiring puzzle.

Little Jewish kids grow up thinking that Chanukah is a celebration of the Jews, who wanted to preserve their culture, triumphing over the Romans, who wanted to get rid of it. This is myth. Bear with me for a brief - I promise, brief - bit of history.

It wasn't the Roman's, it was the Seleucids (SELL-you-sid). This empire spread Greek cultural influence throughout the ancient world. And these guys had the backing of certain Jews who wanted to see Hellenistic (Greek) culture spread. The plot thickens.

The Seleucids and their Jewish supporters fought other Jews who resisted Greek culture. They outlawed certain observances and to the horror and dismay of the Jews, they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, led the Jewish fight against this, and purified and rededicated the Temple.

’Cause We Are Living In A Material World
How do modern Jews make sense of this? We are profoundly touched and shaped by the broader culture. How can we make sense of this festival that is both a commemoration both of a battle for preservation of Jewish values, and also….Jewish civil war?

Chanukah is a mix of deep truth and confused myth. The core of the truth: it is about the effort to preserve a holy space from desecration and the belief in the power to rededicate a space to holiness in the wake of that desecration.

Do you believe in something kadosh, holy? Forget for a moment whether you can describe exactly what that is, or where it resides, or precisely how you can access it. Do you believe that there are values, ideas, perhaps places that could be, but must never be desecrated? That must never be trampled upon?

Wait before you answer - because to believe so is, in our culture, radical. Here where everything from music, to toothpaste to religion can be priced, marketed, sold, repackaged and disposed, claiming that some things are separate and distinct - (the literal meaning of kadosh/holy) - is indeed radical.

And beautiful. Ah, the possibilities and promise of a soul that holds some things holy! Chanukah reminds us that in a world in which our wants and desires, and so often our lowest impulses are either sold back to us or celebrated, we are called upon to stand for what is holy, to kindle lights against the encroaching dark.

Unwrapping the Presence
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “Judaism does not always simplify itself in order to accommodate fashion or society….It demands nonconformity with what prevails in the marketplace, the courage to be different, depth of insight in a world where inane … values are acclaimed through the loudspeakers.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p 28.                                                                            
Uncovering this courage within ourselves is a taxing spiritual pursuit. Do you believe in that part of ourselves that always sees the dignity in others, no matter their social standing, that draws from hidden wells of generosity, no matter our culture's approval of selfishness, that discovers awe in life, no matter the rush of daily business? Chanukah is about finding that Presence, that something that insists on life's holiness in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Lighten Up
The lights of Chanukah remind us to look for this.

Remember the desecration of the Temple? The oil required to keep the (seven branched) menorah always lit had to be "ok'd" as ritually pure by the Priests. When the Maccabees came to rededicate (in Hebrew, chanukah) the Temple, they found only enough of this kosher oil for one day. According to the Talmud, it miraculously lasted for eight days, enough time to press more olive oil. Voila.

So, now we light our chanukiah with a branch for each night. The Chanukah light is not supposed to be used for anything - not to light a room, not to read by. It is only to remind us of the holiness and the miracle. The candles can't even be used to light one another, which is why we have the shamash, the "servant" candle in the ninth branch, to light the others.

The central mitzvah of Chanukah? Making known the miracle by placing the chanukiah near a window. While for most passersby the Chanukah lights can't remind them of a miracle they don't know about, I think of this as a powerful statement of Jewish pride, and a public commitment to our own personal rededication.

In the Talmud Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai disagreed: do we begin with eight candles and work our way down, or start with one and work our way up. Hillel's answer prevailed: that each night should increase in holiness.

What does it mean to increase the holiness of Chanukah? One way is to make sure that each of the eight days we rededicate ourselves to our deepest values. What if, instead of asking for things that we don’t need, or giving things that our loved ones don’t need, we gave something significant to those who really do need? Make this Chanukah light on family gifts and heavy on tzedakah (support of the needy).

Burn and Learn
Chanukah means 'dedication' but also can be connected to chinuch, education.

The legacy of Chanukah is complex. We are inheritors of the dream of our ancestors, charged with preserving holiness in a world that so often seeks to drown it out. Yet, we are modern Jews in a largely non-Jewish culture, with all of the complexities and dilemmas that this presents. More to the point, this culture is amenable to us and some of its values we hold dear. How do we sort out what this story means for us? In other words, which Jews are we? The assimilators? Or the Maccabees?

I see each of us as containing the spiritual energy of both parties of Jews. Those Jews who drew on their surrounding culture to understand themselves and to broaden themselves, but also those Jews who tended to the lights, preserved the place of holiness within and were dedicated to unfolding the spiritual message of our tradition. Our task is to learn enough about our past, our people, our tradition and ourselves to bring these two dimensions together in a whole way.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!s

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Death of a Shtarker: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

The great Christopher Hitchens has just died. I had such affection for this person I did not know. And why? As a rabbi I suppose I should have been put off or offended by the contemptuousness with which he regarded the religious. Instead I found myself always moved by his breadth of knowledge, appreciative of his deep moral convictions and commitments, and somewhat in awe of his brilliance. In reading Hitchens, there was always a beautiful sense, whether you agreed with him or not, of "so, this is what a human mind can do."

For the meaning of the yiddish shtarker, click here and see the last paragraph of what I think was Hitchens' last piece, a meditation on suffering and it's meaning/lessness.

Wikipedia entry on Hitchens here, a good sense of Hitchen's brutal honesty along with his moral vision (and humor) here, his takedown of Mother Theresa, which gives a good sense of his iconoclasm, here.

It says in the Talmud (Berachot 6a), "The merit of attending a house of mourning lies in the silence observed." It is perhaps the only fitting response to the amazing life of this nearly archetypal man of words.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bowing and Tebowing

Tonight I become the 3,065,449th blogger to address the Tim Tebow/prayer phenomenon. A Jewish perspective here, a Christian evangelical perspective here, a non-evangelical Conservative-cum-Democrat Christian perspective here, a mocking (or maybe just-good-fun?) website here.

What is it about the prayer pose of this Denver Broncos QB that is driving everyone so crazy? Why do we care?

I'm a praying person, so I shouldn't be bothered by these public prayers, should I? I should get it, I should sympathize in the spirit of ecumenism, etcetera, etcetera. But it just...bugs me. There's something so performative about his prayer. "Oh, don't mind me, while I quietly and humbly offer a prayer to the creator of the universe in a private moment in front of millions of television viewers and many thousands of cheering fans."

I think that, whether it reflects what is in Tebow's heart or not, a healthy suspicion of his authenticity is at work here. Yeah, yeah, maybe we shouldn't judge that, but, you know what? When you get down on one knee in front of millions of people who are watching you get down on one knee....you're inviting that.

Tim Tebow is no Jew, that's for sure. But a Talmudic discussion about prayer raises some of the issues at issue here. In discussion bowing in Jewish prayer, the Talmud offers a pretty tightly controlled prescription for when to do it. What's the big deal? Why not just bow when you want? Medieval commentators thought that it had to do with humility. A 13th century Spanish Rabbi wrote "Submissiveness...in an inappropriate place is arrogance because he imagines he is a righteous person." (Uri Ehrlich, The Non Verbal Language of Prayer, p 62).

In the Jewish tradition the gesture of bowing, a limited but important part of prayer's choreography, is , in part, a non-verbal expression of humility. As Rav Kook taught, true humility is not an act of groveling submission, but a step towards profound spiritual growth. A kind of ego-emptying that brings one toward a deeper reality beyond self.

An act of humility performed in front of millions of people - is that humility? I guess only Tim Tebow can know that. A bow, properly performed with the appropriate kavanah, or inward focus and understanding, expresses and even creates, an inner sense of the pray-ers reality in the face of the Divine. When the act is so publicly demonstrated by a person who has had millions cheering for him and watching him for hours, the result is a kind of humbled ostentatiousness.

Maybe if the act wasn't so resonant with the arrogant and empty piety of the political world in this moment of our nation's history, it wouldn't be so bothersome. But Tebow's lowering himself reminds us a bit too much of candidates genuflecting before the Christian electorate to win their sympathies. So, the spectacle of candidates with decidedly irreligious pasts tripping over one another in heart-wrenching expressions of pained piety in order to win votes - well, let's just say it doesn't inspire one to remember the highest virtues of human beings. For sure, these candidates may be real-live Christians on the inside and out.

But the performative nature of it not only raises questions about its religious meaning, it also makes life uncomfortable for religious minorities, who might wonder whether a candidate leading an evangelical prayer rally for 30,000 Christians might always protect their interests.

But wouldn't it be funny to see the Jewish Tebow, davvening on the 50 yard line, tzitzit flying? I'd forgive him.

Tebow praying: Louis Lopez/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com; Rick Perry praying from deathandtaxes.com