Thursday, December 22, 2011

Essence of a Miracle

2nd Day of Hannukah
Parshat MiKetz
26 Kislev, 5772
December 22nd, 2011

You’ve got to wonder what our Rabbis were thinking. Oil? Eight days? That’s the miracle? What about that other miracle, where the Jews won their freedom from an enemy better armed and more powerful? A lamp burning for eight days seems like one of those stories where somebody sees the face of a religious figure in a bowl of Cheerios: as miracles go, this one just doesn’t seem to cut it.

As with understanding anything of past years, imagination is everything. So, imagine for a second. Imagine that you, battle-scarred, grime-smeared, and battle-weary, stand inside the Temple in Jerusalem. When you got there, the place was a disaster: torn to pieces, the sacrifices of pigs to pagan gods still evident. Imagine that you have fought in a particularly vicious, bloody guerilla war. Imagine that the war was not just against a foreign invader, but also a kind of civil war, against Jews who allied themselves with the Greeks. Imagine that you have fought even against your brothers.

In these circumstances, I imagine this question: will God come back to this place, or are we abandoned forever? After this war, has God forgotten us?

 And as the light burned steadily, night after night, we knew that we were not alone.

חנוכה שמח
Happy Hannukah

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pressing Business


Parshat VaYeshev
20 Kislev, 5772
December 16th, 2011

Among our most important teachers in rabbinical school were Ignacio Ojeda and his staff, who ran the kitchen and the cafeteria. My guess is that they were conscious of their role as unofficial professors, and their part in turning aspiring rabbis, educators, undergrads, et al. in actual human beings, even if they never outright said it.

Their coursework was simplicity itself: how to be kind to people, even when working hard. They taught by example.

Coming into our cafeteria meant being greeted with a smile and by name, questions about your family, and, in my case, constant teasing because you weren’t married yet.*

I cannot overestimate how important those brief moments of kindness were. They took a relationship which had the single, paltry virtue of being functional, and raised it into a gift. It was a privilege to walk into their dining hall.

The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Helbo, who in turn heard it from Rav Huna, that if you know a person will regularly greet you, you should greet that person first. Not to do so is to be called a thief. Brakhot 6b

To paraphrase the Mesillat Yesharim, you don’t need me to tell you that these words are true; everyone knows to be polite. But the truth of kind greeting is so obvious that it is easily set aside. Therefore let us reminds ourselves of what we already know.

Sometimes we assume that familiarity absolves us of the need for niceties. Sometimes we believe that the business we have before us takes precedence over personal connection. These conceits are very seductive, very convincing – we have known each other for years, we have important matters to which we must attend. These conceits are wrong.

Remember that everyone, literally everybody, needs to be seen for more than their function. Remember that with kindness, everything is forgivable, without it, little is acceptable. Remember that, in a spiritual community, there is no more pressing business than kind connection.

*Please do not follow their example!

Friday, December 9, 2011

What Defines Us

Parshat VaYishlah
13 Kislev, 5772
December 9th, 2011

It happened for the first time in 2009. Customers, lined up since 9pm the night before, literally burst through the Wal-mart’s doors at 5am, and trampled an employee, Jdimtyai Damour, to death.

This year, a women pepper-sprayed 20 others in the face. Her reason? To clear a path to the Xbox display.  A 63 year man collapsed in a Target when his heart failed. Shoppers stepped over his fallen body so they could continue shopping. He later died in the hospital.

Largely in order to deal with these incidents, retail chains started opening for 24 hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving, meaning that their employees leave their Thanksgiving tables to go straight to work, or lose their jobs.

Societies are defined not only by the values they promote, but also by those they tolerate. The toleration of the culture that Black Friday has spawned is one of the worst insults we can level at ourselves. What we allow is the statement, yearly, on our national day of gratitude, that the consumption of non-essential goods at rock bottom prices far outranks our valuation of human decency. Don’t believe me? Here’s how we feel about towels. 

I have a paperweight that reads, “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another. It’s from the Talmud - a lovely sentiment, just looking at it.

But the dirty little secret of the phrase is that, in context, it means that all of Israel is legally responsible for one another: that is, we bear culpability for each others actions simply through because part of the same nation. What our neighbors do reflects upon us.

This is deep wisdom about what it means to be a nation, about the impossibility of eschewing mutual responsibility, and it is true here as well. What is allowed to happen on Black Friday speaks volumes about us all, and is destroying the only truly ecumenical holiday in this country. It’s time for the end of Black Friday.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thank you, Jason

Parshat VaYetze
6 Kislev, 5772
December 2nd, 2011

Story number one.
Once upon a time there was a young man who had a real facility with puppets. In college, in the fifties, this man dreamed of a new kind of puppet – much more lifelike, for more than just kids, and was even asked to start a 5 minute television show. This show, called Sam and Friends, featured a lizard or amphibian-like puppet by the name of Kermit.
Despite his initial success, it took this man, Jim Henson, ten years of slogging through commercials before he was invited onto a PBS show called Sesame Street.  Mostly because of Henson’s puppets, Sesame Street became the greatest children’s show of all time. Another five years and Henson was able to spin off a new show, based on his vision that puppets were for everyone, called The Muppets. The Muppets themselves jumped straight into the childhood and life of millions of American kids, including me. When Henson died tragically in 1990, he was a legend to my generation.
It’s crazy just how much those puppets made a difference to us. Our world was one of pressure to achieve – pressure which has only increased to this day. The Muppets were somehow the opposite of that – heroes whose heroism was their tragic inability to do anything right: Fozzie’s jokes, Gonzo’s stunts, Kermit’s plans for the show, Piggie’s plans for Kermit. What kept them alive was a vision of kindness and loyalty to each other, which somehow got them through everything, and a huge dose of humor, which made the tough times a treasure. The Muppets taught us to how laugh at life. In middle school, that lesson means a lot.

Story number two.
I went to high school with guy by the name of Jason Segel. We weren’t friends, but he was a real decent human being. Being that we were in high school, this was something of a feat.
When it was time to graduate, I was surprised to find out that he had decided not to go to college, but rather pursue acting. I was socialized to regard college as about as negotiable as death and taxes, and I remember thinking him kind of insane.
But sure enough, Jason started to work and get real billing. Eventually becoming part of the Judd Apatow steamroller, Jason is now one of the most successful comedic actors in the country.
Jason, according to interviews, actually has a room in his house dedicated to the Muppets. So, post his success, he approached Disney with the first Muppet script in over a decade. The movie came out November 23rd, and my brother at I were there for the midnight showing. It is a fact that I cried when Kermit sang, “The Rainbow Connection.”

The life of an adult is one of which children cannot conceive. Our prospects become fuller as we get older, and paths that were beyond our young understanding reveal themselves. Life has more, rather than less, in store for us as we grow up. But it is equally true that our vision of what happiness is born young, and stays with us for life. The expectations of how we should feel, what we should value, what lets us know that we are safe, are loved, are alive – these are creations of our childhood. Eikhah says, “hadesh yameinu kekedem” – make our days new like they were in the beginning: bring us to the happiness we dreamed of as children, and that we slog through work to find as adults. What the Muppets had was what I think of as true happiness.
So thank you, Jason. The movie was great. You brought the best of our childhood back to us.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

To Everything There Is A Purpose


7 Heshvan, 5772
November 4, 2011

The great and holy Rav Kook made a small point with big implications. When the world was being created, on the sixth day, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it tov meod – very good.” (Bereishit 1:31)

What Rav Kook noticed was the inclusion of that pesky word kol – all. For, taken literally, God stated that everything God created in this world was good.

How can this be? War, death, and sickness exist in the world – are they good? Poverty, struggle, pain – are they good?

Rav Kook believed that even in what we consider to be universal evils, there is always at least a spark of good, and even in that which we would die fighting against, there is always a spark of holy purpose.

To everything there is a purpose. Without the existence of pain, human beings would never understand compassion. Without the reality of death, human beings would not push to make life sweet. Without fundamentalism, we would never have learned that even belief in God can lead a person astray. Though the existence of this purpose does not mitigate the evil contained therein, everything has a reason for being.

It is right to pray that evil disappears, and more right to work towards redemption’s arrival. But sometimes we are so busy stamping out what we don’t like about the world that we forget to understand why that evil came to be, and what it has to teach us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Opinion of Others


28th Tishrei, 5772
October 26th, 2011

Don Marquis, an American humorist jack-of-all-trades, once said, “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”

He’s right, and his being right is huge problem for us all.

You and I learn how to be good through others’ approval. When we’re children, people’s response to us teaches us whether we’ve done right or wrong. So, the inclination to care what other people think starts early and runs deep.

But with a constancy that bespeaks the immutability of human nature, making people think does not win their kindness. Rather, when you speak up for justice, when you poke holes in facades covering societal ills, when you question the way things are, be assured that you will make a lot of people very, very angry.

Anger is understandable. Human beings are bad at change, and readily prefer the evil they know over the good they don’t. Even when change is in our self-interest, it is our nature to resist it. The people of Israel to Moshe and Aharon, “…May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharoah and his courtiers…” (Exodus 5:21)

What this anger means, though, is that sometimes we have to lean against our instinctual tendency to want approval. The opinions of others are not the sign of our merit.

About Noah, the Torah says, “…He was a righteous and blameless man in his generation…” (Genesis 6:9) I have no doubt that his contemporaries thought well of him, and praised his holiness. But a more holy man would have fought for the fate of the earth, pushed people to be better, and accepted the wrath he incurred thereby. There is a reason we call ourselves “the seed of Avraham,” and that Noah’s name is left behind.

True Religion


Hoshanna Raba
21 Tishrei, 5772
October 18th, 2011

The University of Minnesota just put out a groundbreaking study, massive in both size and scope – 39,000 women over nearly 20 years. What it revealed was that taking vitamin supplements did not help these women live any longer. In fact, those who took supplements died three to 10% earlier.*
But what I know for certain about this study is that it will not change anything. Belief in the power of multivitamins will prevail. The vitamin industry will stay strong. All this is because, in this country, health is religion, not science.

If well-off Americans have one true religion, it is our health and the health of our children. We treat received knowledge about health and illness as articles of faith: once we’ve accepted a health factoid as true (anti-oxidants prevent cancer*, vaccines cause autism*) no amount of evidence to the contrary can shake our belief in it.

Sartre writes, “How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it…But there are other people who are attracted by the durability of the stone…What frightens them is not the content of the truth…but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation.”

Part of the honest life, even in the face of disease, is acknowledging that there are few givens and little surety when it comes to our health. The truth of our bodies, as Sartre says, is indefinite – stated in probabilities, not absolutes. Honesty means giving up certainty and living well and boldly nonetheless. It is strange for a rabbi to say, but we could do with being a little less religious.

* Just to be clear, there is no claim that supplements negatively impact one’s health. Three to 10% is in the realm of statistical variance. The study simply indicates that multivitamins have no positive effect on longevity.
* From the National Cancer Institute: “However, information from recent clinical trials is less clear. In recent years, large-scale, randomized clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions. 
* The study suggesting that autism and the MMR vaccine were linked was retracted by The Lancet, the British medical journal which originally printed it. Significantly, the NYT article reported these comments: “’It builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism,’ Mr. Skinner wrote in an e-mail message. A British medical panel concluded last week that Dr. Wakefield (the author of the study) had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children involved in his research.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Journey, Foreigner, My Sukkah

Erev Sukkot,
14 Tishrei, 5772
October 12th, 2011

A friend of mine graciously invited me along to the Bowl last night, for what sounded like the Greatest. Concert. Ever. That’s right, 80’s throwbacks, I saw Journey and Foreigner live.  I was a juke box hero. I was ready to rock.

The stress of the High Holy Days always turns freneticism into normality. There’s simply so much to do, so much to worry about, that my mind continually darts from mental place to place without any sense of stillness. Though I love the Days of Awe, they rarely bring me peace.

I stepped into that concert with that stress still on my shoulders. But at some point in the middle, I realized that I was a different person. The old me had returned.

So what was it about an awesome, cheesy, big-haired 80’s concert that transformed me? Simply that, in the midst of 18,000 people, you can’t really go anywhere but the bathroom. And that, with 80’s rock decibels, you can’t really do anything but listen to the music (and rock out, of course).

There are many blessings to not being able to leave. There are even more to having to pay attention to where you are. The problem with contemporary life is that there’s too much of it: we rarely have the opportunity to let our minds rest on any one thing. At ridiculous power-rock concerts, one doesn’t have much of a choice.

The introduction to Sukkot is clear and inevitable: “A person should live in the sukkah seven days, just in the manner that a person resides in his house during the rest of the year.” We just pick up our lives and move them to the sukkah. For seven days, space and attention are changed. If we do it right, it’s hard to exit into real life. And that’s the point: only when we can’t really leave does the magic take over.

May nothing take you away from your sukkah,
Hag Sameah,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

Thursday, September 22, 2011


23 Elul, 5771
September 22nd, 2011

There is this thing called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You, like me, may have heard a physics professor mention it while you were trying to sleep in the back row of class.

Anyways, the Uncertainty Principle is a foundation of quantum mechanics, and it states something extraordinary: the more precisely one knows a particle’s position, the less precisely one can know that particle’s momentum, and vice versa.

In plainer words, the more we know where something is, the less we know where it’s going. The reverse is true as well.* Uncertainty about one or the other is part of reality.

I find this theorem an elegant metaphor for the life of the spirit. Indeed it is possible to see most spiritual questions as about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. And about the last two I will simply say: it is impossible to be certain about both at the same time.

Some attempt to write spiritual prescriptions, describing the precise path from A to B in life, guaranteeing success if steps are precisely followed. I reject such attempts with the totality of my being. A spirituality that does not include uncertainty is not worthy of the name.

*Physicists reading this are probably tearing their hair out at the inaccuracy of my description. To them I can only say: you aren’t the first. 

Friday, September 16, 2011


17 Elul, 5771
September 16th, 2011

I recently heard an unfortunate true story. A Jewish spiritual group met for a weekend retreat at a University retreat center, all ardent and passionate practitioners. At some point during the retreat, the kitchen’s manager stepped out and made a plea. His workers, he said, were coming to him in tears; many had threatened to quit. Apparently the sheer number of exceptional individual dietary requests (kosher, vegetarian, vegan, raw, no dairy, no wheat, no eggs, no cheese, no soy) combined with the lack of kindness with which the requests were made, had made these workers’ jobs intolerable.

It is true that, in the service of holiness, one changes the way one lives, and circumscribes for oneself that which may be part of the lives of others. Kohanim, who performed the holiest of work, keep themselves from graveside funerals (unless for immediate family). 

But even the high priest was required to tend to the dead body of a stranger, should he be the first to find it, no matter the impurity he acquired. To leave a body uncared for violated the very holiness which he served.

Our world is increasingly one of niche living. We find holiness in what we put in our bodies, how we do or do not use them, how we treat and care for them. And we do this as a fiercely individual expression of choice.

But occasionally the truest expression of our holiness will be our inconsistency. Absent of real medical need, we will remember that our personal choices affect others, and we will, for their sake, lower our standards. To understand holiness is to know that sometimes it is found in the breach.

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's The Pray-er, Not The Prayer

Parshat Ki Tetzei
10 Elul, 5771
September 9th, 2011

We need to talk about the difference between magic and prayer. It’s important. In a few weeks we’re all going to be spending a lot of time together, saying prayer after prayer. We should know what we’re doing.
Behind magic is the will to power. It is the idea that if I say these words, in the right order, with the right emphasis (winGARDium leviOsa), I will make something extraordinary happen. In magic, it is in my control to fulfill my desires.
Prayer is the opposite. Its essence is that the fulfillment of my desires are in Another’s control. It is the acknowledgment that I cannot force the world to do my bidding. Behind prayer is the acceptance of vulnerability.
Now magic sounds a whole lot cooler, which is why we love Harry Potter. Prayer has only the poor pedigree of being true to the human condition. To ask sincerely for what we need, yet understand that we need help in the fulfillment thereof is beautiful and human.
This difference goes beyond theory. If synagogue was a magical place, all that would matter is the recitation of the right words in the right order. Because it is a prayerful place, vulnerability is far more important than words.
Forget your mahzor, bring your sincerity to shul. It’s the pray-er, not the prayer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

Parshat Shoftim
2 Elul, 5771
September 1st, 2011

A wonderful congregant told me the other day that she folk-dances regularly. We have a number of dancers at the shul – Israeli, square, and otherwise. She mentioned that her particular blend preserves and teaches folk dances from all over the world. One can even attend the annual folk-dance camp in Stockton, CA, where specialists teach various global dance traditions.
What strikes me is that there is an annual conference where dances are learned, and, perhaps more importantly, dance traditions preserved. Of course, when these dances were created, they were simply what everyone did. Dancing grew within communities as the heart of a social experience. There was no conference.
Today, people gather and work hard just to keep those dances alive.
The struggle to preserve local tradition is not limited to dance. I’d argue that it’s a facet of our age. It takes a great deal of time and patience, as well as stability, for local traditions to poke a sprout out of the ground, develop, and accrete the well worn shine that speaks of countless generations.
You and I do not know from stasis. We are rolling stones, more mobile than ever, changing more quickly than ever. Our age moves too fast to permit natural accretion over time.
I believe this is why the best innovation of our age is directed at recovering lost tradition. Farmer’s markets, sustainability movements, community-building – all are about regaining the richness lost in the speed of change.
These efforts are worth the work we put into them. They come neither easily nor effortlessly, but yet retain their gifts to each of us. “Return us, God, and we will return; make our days new like they were in the beginning.” Eicha 5:21  In our time, looking forward means looking back. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Parshat Re’eh
25 Menahem Av, 5771
August 25th, 2011

    All through my childhood my father refused to take what my siblings and I called “real vacations.” The slightest whiff of ostentation meant instant rejection, and merely saying “Hawaii” would have produced gales of laughter. However, Dad was willingly and equivalently generous on trips that he considered character building.
    This meant that I spent my childhood and adolescence packed into our family motorhome, listening to books on tape, exploring a surprising amount of the western United States: up and down the coast of California, Sequoia, Mammoth, the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah, Nevada, Lake Havasu, Yosemite, and one extraordinary trip to Yellowstone and back.
    As is the way of grown children, I am now grateful to my parents for destroying my chance at teenage popularity. I have never seen Waikiki beach, but I feel a rootedness in the land on which I was raised. When I leave town to camp, or simply to drive to a conference up north, I find a part of myself waiting for me in California’s landscape, whether beach, sierra, or farmland. This gorgeous state is my home, and a grand home it is.
    You and I are urbane people. Connection to the land is something that we wonder at, not that we experience daily. 
    But while driving it occurred to me that our disconnection occasions the loss of something essential. Nature and that which comes from it - primarily all that we eat - have lost their depth for us. We are unable to see the seed sown to raise the wheat for our bread. We do not remember the sweat wiped from brows when the grain was harvested, milled, made into flour, baked in ovens. We do not know whether the hands which rolled the dough were treated humanely or abused. All that which comes from the land has deep history indeed. 
    Rabbi Ahai ben Yoshayah stated: One who purchases grain in the market—to
what may such a person be likened? To an infant whose mother died, and they pass him from door to door among wetnurses and [still] the baby is not satisfied. Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31:1
    The danger is seeing the land, and the food which comes from it, as flat - somehow without history - for this builds an insensitivity and rapaciousness. We act as a baby never truly full, caring only about getting more, not where that “more” comes from. 
    May we all be blessed with finding our roots in the land around us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Burden of Choice


Parshat Re'eh
17 Menahem Av, 5771
August 17th, 2011

The New York Times Magazine this week published an article on a startling dilemma of medical ethics. The introduction of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) has made it common that women seeking infertility treatments will become pregnant with multiple embryos. In a number of cases, women carry more fetuses than they can safely bear to term. In order to protect the mother’s life, doctors terminate all but two or three.
As is the case with so much of medical progress, new technology has brought unprecedented choice. In the words of the article, “…what began as an intervention for extreme medical circumstances has quietly become an option for women carrying twins. With that, pregnancy reduction shifted from a medical decision to an ethical dilemma.” Women now may choose to reduce twins or triplets to a single fetus.
The Torah’s view of abortion maps very poorly onto contemporary discourse. It would understand neither Catholic/Protestant ideas that life begins at conception, nor the idea of a “right to choose.” Depending on circumstance, Torah permits, forbids, and even compels abortion.* But I do not believe that the criticality of this ethical question – whether one may electively reduce a pregnancy – is found in a discussion on abortion. Rather, this is a question about the will of God.
The will of God is a powerful idea in Torah. It most often means accepting that which is placed before us and relinquishing control. Death, for example: every time a person dies we say a prayer, the tziduk hadin (acknowledging the righteousness of the judgment), which understands that mortality is the will of God.
But in IVF-related pregnancies, the problem is that multiple embryos are not the will of God.** They are the direct result of human intervention, an acknowledged statistical possibility of a medical technique. The situation has evolved from accepting what God ordains into the question of making Godly decisions between the possibilities available to us.
These decisions are not simple: since the pregnancy was artificially initiated, should women have more choice about how it progresses? Which reasons for doing so are moral and which not? The stakes are high.
Our headlong hurtle into undreamed technologies is changing our fundamental relationship to God and the world. We are vastly more powerful, but still just as corruptible. We carry an unheard of burden of choice, but are moving so quickly that we do not bear the burden easily.
I think it foolish to believe that we could just take a breather from technological progress. But we do need to spend much more time understanding what is happening to us and what we are becoming. Not doing so means morally abandoning those confronted by the difficult decisions that progress occasions. We owe them, and ourselves, and God more.

*Two well-grounded synopses of halakhic views of abortion:

**Except in the sense that everything (literally everything) is the will of God. This is some deep theology, so catch me in the halls and we’ll talk about it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Death by Committee

Parshat VaEthanan
Shabbat Nahamu
11 Av, 5771
August 11th, 2011

400 years ago, a group of bishops under the guidance of one of England’s most quirky and brilliant kings, James, came together to create an English translation of the Bible, now known as one of the great masterpieces of English literature. Originally without title (other than Holy Bible, of course) this translation is known to us as The King James Version.
The King James was such a powerful force in the English language that the turns of language invented therein are a lasting part of our life, four centuries later: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “a drop in the bucket,” “a fly in the ointment,” “labor of love,” “skin of your teeth,” “the powers that be,” and on. A full list of these phrases can be found here
            The story of the King James’ creation is extraordinary. It was written by committee: six directors and 48 separate translators. Those who have sat on boards should imagine accomplishing anything with 48 separate members, let alone translate the entire Bible.
            Moreover, Jacobean England was a religiously fractious time. Not only had England just separated from the Catholic Church only sixty years before, but there were significant divisions within England: The established Church of England, reforming Puritans, outlawed Presbyterians, and Calvinists.
Yet out of this mess came what became known as the English Bible. And as one who works in committee regularly, all I can say is – I would give almost anything to know their secret.
Adam Nicolson wrote God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. And here’s what he writes, “The currency of this world was talk between people who had known each other all their lives, and the intimacy of those relationships was crucial to the nature of the conference…and to the qualities of the Bible that would eventually emerge from it…These were the people in whose hands the future of the Church of England lay and they all knew each other. They were deeply opposed on important issues but a single envelope, what would nowadays be called a single discourse, contained them, and much of the peaceableness of England can be explained by that.” (46-47)
It matters not that we disagree with each other. It fact our disagreement may be a great asset. What matters is that we know each other well, intimately, and that our issues are shared issues. The unity of shared life is far more important than the unity of our thoughts. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Give What You Have

Parshat Devarim
4 Menahem Av, 5771
August 4th, 2011

When Rabbi Isaac Klein was an Army chaplain during World War II, he was brought through an orientation for religious leaders to Army life. His assumption was that succeeding as a chaplain would require sacrificing chunks of his personal religious life.

He assumed incorrectly. His superior, a Catholic priest, quoted a legal principle to the budding chaplains: Nemo dat quod non habet -- one cannot give what one does not have.* Invest, he meant, in your own religious practice so that you can give of your spirituality to your soldiers.

I believe this to be powerful Torah. Sometimes we assume that being of service to others -- helping them -- requires forgoing ourselves what we wish others to receive. It seems to us the selfless thing.

The opposite is true. In order to give of wisdom, we must learn to be wise. In order to give of community, we must first know its warmth. In order to give of passion, we must first find where we are passionate. In order to love, we must know what it is to be loved.

Self-deprivation is not selflessness. To provide others with what we have worked to achieve --to give what we have -- is the true Torah of love.

*Because I can’t resist, know that this same rule exists in halakha - Jewish law. See the Rambam “an object which is not in the possession of the seller - he cannot sell it.” Hilkhot Mekhirah 22. See also Talmud Bava Kama, 68b.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Problem of PS 22

Parshat Masei
25 Tammuz, 5771
July 27th, 2011

     PS 22 of Staten Island is the world’s newest celebrity chorus. Now a de rigueur stop for any musician on an album tour, P. S. 22 has performed at the Grammys, is an Internet sensation, and has achieved stardom’s holy grail: being on Oprah. But the members of the PS 22 chorus are not what you might expect: they are 10 and 11 years old.
     These kids are good. They sing multi-part harmony with no apparent effort. Unlike most of the kid-centered performances we attend, listening to them is more than just cute. Their talent is awe-inspiring.
     Now, it isn’t like prodigious feats in childhood are foreign to us. However, our stories about childhood stardom involve scenes of unrelenting, Soviet-esque training, megalomaniacal parents, and intense break–point pressure. What astonishes every celebrity and journalist (writing in The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, etc.) is how much fun these particular kids have when they sing. They are so relaxed, so into their groove that I find myself envious of the good time they’re having.
     Here is the problem of PS 22: their existence proves that extraordinary things are possible. Yes, children can create beauty while increasing their self-worth. Yes, to be both excellent and carefree is achievable. And when a group of underprivileged grade-schoolers breaks the boundaries of the possible while giggling, how can we deny that such things are in our grasp as well?
     “HaYipale meHaShem davar?” God says to Sara, “Is there anything too wondrous for God to do?” Would that we saw ourselves as a little more divine.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Judaism vs. the Jews

18 Tammuz, 5771
July 20th, 2011

           Rabbi Max Arzt was one of the most successful and influential pulpit rabbis of the 20th century. Widely respected, Rabbi Arzt was once asked by a group of recent seminary graduates about the secret to a successful career in the pulpit. “Ahavas yisroel” (love for Jews), he responded. When the young rabbis started laughing, he looked at them and said, “What? You think it’s easy?”
            I have to admit to mixed feelings about this story. On one hand, I am convinced of Rabbi Arzt’s wisdom. All my best moments are inevitably tied to accepting those I serve for who they are and letting love grow. My failures spring from the opposite mentality.
            However, for people of my generation there is a dark side to what Jewish pundits proclaim as, “peoplehood,” which is this: it is characteristic of American Jewish synagogues to love Jews, but not Judaism.
            Many people tell me that the purpose of synagogue is the connection of Jews with other Jews preferably (but not necessarily) with the celebration of Jewish culture. Many will openly state that they find the Judaic function of a synagogue secondary, tertiary, or irrelevant.
            There are a number of problems here. First, people like me who fell in love with Judaism have no home. Being a rather assertive (or obnoxious, as some people call us) group, we choose to defect, form our own groups, and leave extant communities behind.
            Second, I have reluctantly been convinced that the rest of humanity does not have to agree with me. People have the right not to like religion. But using davenning to create peoplehood is like using a turkey baster to fix a computer: even if you can get the job done, the tool has lost its purpose.
            There is much to say on this topic, and I welcome your thoughts. But please, friends - ahavat torah (love of Torah), ahavat HaShem (love of God) created ahavat yisrael. The child is bereft without its parents.


Parshat Pinchas
11 Tammuz 5771,
July 13, 2011

“When the historian tries to depict the spirit of bygone times, it is usually his own spirit that makes itself heard.” - Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History

     I was once in a lecture by Doreen Seidler-Feller, a psychologist and expert on sex therapy, about marriage and relationships among contemporary Jews. In the middle of her talk, a participant made suggestion that raised my eyebrows: “we should go back to the way of the shtetl,” she said, “You know, arranged marriage - things were simpler then.”
    Now, it wasn’t the suggestion of arranged marriage that shocked me -- I’ve heard that one before - but rather the idea that things were easier back in shtetl days.
    I’ve encountered many Jews who invoke the “Fiddler on the Roof” effect. It seems that dancing milkmen and seamstresses are waiting in the alleyways of our minds, just waiting to burst to into song.
    The truth of shtetl life, despite its beautiful glow, was much harsher and immobile than our cultural memory tells us. What this women was remembering, as so many of us do, was not true history.
    I believe Hegel is right: what we see in the past is most often the reflection of our present longing. The answers to our problems are not to be found in a longing for past times which per force distorts what truly happened, but in the invigoration of our present.
Prisca iuvent alios: ego me nunc denique natum gratulor.
Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.
-Ovid, Ars Amatoria III  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Time to Volunteer

Parshat Balak
4 Tammuz, 5771
July 6th, 2011

What confuses people is that tzedakah is not voluntary. Unlike the English “charity,” from the Latin caritas, implying voluntary affection or love, tzedakah is from the word tzedek – (obligatory) justice.
 For our ancestors, tzedakah meant a communal obligation from which they were not free to desist. Often the village court determined what it thought each person was able to give, and then sent gabaim to collect. (Tur Yoreh Deah 348) Rabbi Eli Schochet tells the story that his grandfather, a community rabbi in Lithuania, would stop at each house in the village for the purposes of tzedakah: either you gave or you took; those were the only two options.
The money from the tzedakah collection was used to provide soup kitchens and food for poor families, trousseaus for orphan brides, and clothing collections. It made sure that people had the basics. And it was not a choice.
Which is why I am devastated by the new state budget, driven by our financial reality, which cut somewhere between $7 and $15 billion to social services to the needy, elderly, and disabled, public education, and national parks (in Jewish communities, taxes were levied for education and civil defense/maintenance). I understand these cuts to violate foundational communal mitzvot of the Torah, which teach that it is our first responsibility to protect the weak, “lest there be a nasty thing in your heart…and your eye is evil upon your needy brother and you do not give to him…and you bear sin because of [how you treated] him” (Deuteronomy 15:9)
Since the deed is done, I believe it upon us to compensate for these changes in another way.
It’s time for us to start volunteering.
We need to fill the money gap with our volunteer hours. We need to help them with that for which they are unable to pay. We all need to become volunteers, and in the areas that need it most: the needy, the elderly, the disabled, or education.
We American Jews possess unrivaled professional talents, and by giving of them we can make a difference. It’s time to change. I am personally committing to volunteering at least twice a month to serve. I invite you to join me on the way.

Great Los Angeles Volunteering Opportunities:
Jewish Family Services –
The Midnight
Volunteer Los Angeles (a great website with multiple volunteering options) –
Meals on Wheels –

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Current

Parshat Hukat
27 Sivan, 5771
June 29th, 2011

            On the boat ride out to our dive site, the divemaster mentioned that the current around Cozumel (it’s an island) was stronger than usual, and that we should be prepared.
            I’m not much of a scuba diver, but the Mexican Carribean is considered to have some of the best diving in the world. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
I did not, however, grasp what the divemaster was telling me.
            As my guide and I descended, the current grabbed us and basically threw us along the ledge of the trench that lies between Cozumel and Cancun. When we surfaced forty minutes later, we had traveled so far our starting point could not be seen.
            Please know that I wasn’t in danger. I am not trying to convey the appearance of risk. It was the experience of being pushed along by the current that I want to share.
            It felt like nothing so much as flying. Sixty feet under the water, I was flying.
            Every once in a while, we are blessed with the experience that we are connected with something infinitely greater than us. This experience of the numinous gives extraordinary perspective on life; we understand in an instant the great forces that propel us forward, so large that we were unable to see them for their vastness. We realize that much of who we are and who we become is in hands much larger than our own.
            Some reject these great hands that push us and would rather the choices over our fate be left to individuals, but in them I have found a surprising freedom and beauty. I often pray that they sweep me up along their way. Without them I would not be able to fly. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Do The Heavens Sing?

Parshat Shlah
13 Sivan, 5771
June 15th, 2011

     A friend and I have been cracking our teeth over some Medieval Jewish philosophy. It’s a good metaphor, cracking teeth; we leave every session with our heads ringing.
     The book is An Essay on Teshuvah, and the author Rabbi Menahem Meiri - a brilliant student of Maimonides whose work on the Talmud was recovered after being lost for centuries.
     And here is the question he poses.
     Are the heavens (in the physical sense: stars, constellations, comets and such) beautiful simply because they exist, or are they beautiful because human beings recognize them as beautiful?*
     This question is part of a central philosophical disagreement between essentialism and nominalism: do things like beauty and love actually exist, independent of us? Would they be there even if we were gone? Or does beauty only exist because a human mind names something beautiful?
     To be honest, I have always preferred the purity of the first way of thinking. I would like to think that the Grand Canyon is just as grand without us having to call it so, and that the majesty of so much of God’s creation remains majestic whether or not we’re around to say such. I believe that the stars sing praise to God of their own accord.
     But I also have thought how lonely and quiet the universe would be without us to stick our minds in every nook and cranny of it, asking, judging, chattering, arguing. Whether or not beauty exists independent of humanity, beautiful things are best enjoyed in company. The world is a warmer place because we are here to love it.

* The literal phrasing of the question is more religiously elegant, but more philosophically abstruse : do the heavens sing praise to God simply by through their existing, or is it through our recognition of their movements that the song of praise is created. The first understanding he attributes to the Rambam, the second to Ibn Ezra. Proposition 2, Ch. 2

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Knowing Everything

Parshat Naso
29 Iyyar 5771
June 2nd, 2011
45th Day of the Omer

A story was once told to me about the famously brilliant founder of Agudath Israel in America, Rabbi Eliezer Silver. In the early 1900’s, Rabbi Silver came to America and found work as the rabbi of a congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One night the president of his shul walked by his house one evening and saw him learning Torah.
The president convened a meeting of the board, which promptly fired Rabbi Silver. The reason given was that Rabbi Silver was, apparently, still a student. A real rabbi would know everything.
Part of the inheritance of American intellectual history is, when it comes to learning, an impatience with the space between novicehood and mastery. This is certainly not unique to us, but as the first of the modern democratic nations, we have a heaping dose of it. The time between starting along the path of learning and reaching its apex is considered a waste of time. We would certainly shorten the road could we manage it successfully.
Our impatience with the discomfort of learning has particularly unfortunate side effects for contemporary Jews. A person can come to Shabbat, every Shabbat, for 30 or 40 years and feel no more knowledgeable about our tefillah than when she came in, nor feel that he really knows the content of Torah despite hearing it read every week. Something is amiss.
Patience, my friends, I urge patience. Rabbi Silver had it right – the process of learning is so fine a thing, even if prickly at first, to be worth stretching out over an entire lifetime. Our desire to learn quickly and be done with it has brought us to the place where we never have the time to learn anything. We deserve better than the freneticism of our culture.

“In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks.” Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Majesty of Brokenness


Parshat Bamidbar
38th Day of the Omer
22 Iyyar, 5771
May 26th, 2011

God knows our yetzers (urges), and remembers that we are dust
Psalm 103:14

A man pulled up next to me on Westwood, and gestured that I should roll down my window. Then he started yelling.
            It’s the reason he started yelling that prompts this retelling. I had not cut him off, nor had I blocked his way, or done anything having to do with traffic. Rather, his anger was prompted by a political bumper sticker on my car (a fairly parve one, at that).
            Almost every day, during Shaharit, the guys at the Minyan and I pray the words above. They are meant to remind us of our frailty, our overwhelming tendency to give in to our temptations and inclinations, and the fact that so much of what we want is prompted by our basest instincts.
            These words are also some of the most life-giving I know.
            Pirkei Avot teaches that what defines a hero is conquering of one’s urges, and this is true. Restraint is heroic because our yetzer never tires of convincing us that it is in fact warranted, that it is justified. Anger’s genius is its success at explaining why other people deserve ours. Be it politics, or family issues, or perceived slights, or work disagreements – more of us are like the Westwood yeller than we might admit. The yetzer hara is an implacable foe.
            Salvation lies in the consciousness that our urges are both flawed and fleeting. We are more than our impulses. Beyond the acceptance of brokenness lies majesty.