Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Parshat Aharei Mot
Shabbat HaGadol
9 Nisan 5771
April 13th, 2010

I was skeptical when a psychologist friend recommended Dr. Gabor Maté’s book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. It is about addiction and substance abuse, to which my eyes are being opened because of its quiet, overwhelming prevalence in our middle class world. Most of the books about it I have found to be either overly technical or – how can I put this? – kind of foofy.

There is nothing foofy about this book. Maté has spent decades in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the homeless drug addicts live. And die. He is their physician, and he helps some of the most difficult, powerless, violent, traumatized people in the world prevent  septicemia, caused by too much IV drug use, from overwhelming their weak immune systems, from HIV and Hepatitis, as they sacrifice their well being for just one more hit (just one example).

My moment of clarity came when Dr. Maté compared their addictions to his overwhelming need to buy as many classical CD’s as possible. Suspicious of any incipient foof, I was about to put the book down until Maté mentions that he once spent $8000 in single week on albums.

We think that there is this class of people called drug addicts, who are so badly damaged or built that they are somehow separate from the rest of us. This is not the portrait Gabor Maté paints.

Rather, he talks about an infinite spectrum of trauma, from the humdrum into the hellish: physical abuse, sexual abuse, massive betrayal, tragedy, death. “Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance abuse is the addict’s attempt to avoid distress…Addictions always originate in pain.”

We all suffer. And many of us try to fill that suffering with alcohol and drugs, pills, internet pornography, gambling, compulsive spending, compulsive overeating, working to the point that our work consumes our lives – all so that we avoid the suffering. But these do not work.

What Torah offers us instead is a way to close the hole, to understand the pain and bear it, to repurpose our desire to fill it towards beauty, towards health. Hayitani miyordei bor – “in the midst of my dwelling in the pit, You gave me life,” teach our Psalms.  No easy consolation, but a true one.

Just to the east of us, Beit T’Shuvah saves people’s lives everyday through Torah; all around us are Alcholics Anonymous meetings and their various offshoots; in my office is a safe space for any who need it. The life that Torah gives is strong than addiction.

Beit T’Shuvah - -  is the Jewish community’s powerful response to addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous –
Narcotics Anonymous –
Overeaters Anonymous –
Sex Addicts Anonymous -

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ripening Fruit

Parshat Metzora
3 Nisan, 5771
April 7th, 2011

Among the reasons I love being a rabbi is the freedom people give me to be weird. What was thought odd in polite society has magically become “rabbinic” now that I’m ordained. Trust me, I am not the only person to become clergy just so people wouldn’t scratch their heads at him.
This lovely leeway has had a surprising benefit, one for which I’m really grateful. Because people have been so respectful, I’ve been able to carve out a little mental garden for ideas which are not yet ripe. Every once in a while I will show one or the other of these ideas to someone, and they will politely comment that my half-baked theology is really coming along nicely, or that my naïve spirituality looks promising.
I think everyone should be allowed such a garden. In truth, really worthwhile ideas take years to mature. They are often slow in coming, require care, and seem insipid or to lack taste before they are ready. Somehow, our culture demands that we defend completely all that we think, right now. I don’t know how really good ideas can take root in such rocky soil.
I recently asked some very bright, wise people why they don’t speak up more in conversations about Torah. Each said the same thing – that they fear being thought stupid. As a person who, by nature of his job, only knows an idea’s worth after he has shared it (that’s just how it works), I mourn the fact that others do not feel the same freedom. How can we deny the promise of a fruit before it is ripe?

I have come to my garden,
my sister, my bride;
I have gathered my myrrh and spice;
eaten my honey and honeycomb,
drunk my wine and my milk.
Eat, friends, and drink…
Song of Songs 5:1 

The Power of Ritual


Shabbat HaHodesh
Parshat Tazria
24 Adar II, 5771
March 30th, 2011

The Rabbis teach that when Moshe asks to see God, God passes before Moshe and shows him the Divine back (as it were), for no human can see God’s face and live. What Moshe saw was the knot of God’s head tefillin.

I have shopped for a few sets myself. Divine tefillin are probably really expensive.

The question, of course, is why. Of all Beings, it seems like God would have a pass on tefillin. The answer, I believe, lies in the difference between speech and ritual.

Speech is a lousy way to express belief. This is because we have the power to lie, which is not as bad as it sounds. We often need to lie in order to coexist with each other. If we shared exactly what we thought with other people, we would kill each other. One of speech’s important jobs is to obfuscate what we think so that we can have civilization. But this power to cloud men’s minds makes speech unreliable.

Actions are much more dependable – we’ve either done something, or we haven’t. Nothing tells more about what people really believe than what they actually do. So in order to make profound statements of meaning, the incontrovertible kind, we imbue a specific action with a value or idea – that is, performing the action expresses something meaningful. Actions thus imbued are called rituals. Rituals are extremely powerful.

This is the message of God’s tefillin. In the end, the story of what we value will be told through what we have done, not through what we have said. Rituals are the truest expression of our beliefs.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I Got Installed


The following is the drash delivered when I was installed as the rabbi of Adat Shalom, 7 Adar II, 5771

            Let me thank all of you for being here, and especially my family and friends who came from so far away to be at my bar mitzvah.
            I am grateful that this installation has come almost a full year after my hiring. In that time I have come to know you, and to know you is to love you.
            I want to talk about balance.
            A few months ago, I was in Rabbi Artson’s office, trying to figure out how to be a rabbi. (This question, by the way, remains open-ended.)  I asked him how to achieve balance living a rabbi’s life; how to refrain from lurching from meeting to b'nai mitzvah to teaching to flyer approval to funerals, and occasionally to seeing friends and family, learning Torah, or thinking big thoughts about God and the Jewish people. How to be in control of it all.
            In response, he smiled at me.
             At Ziegler you quickly learned to fear that smile. It meant that Rabbi Artson’s brain was about to upend your entire worldview. This is a highly frustrating experience, entailing days of tearing your hair out before it was possible to fit the pieces back together.
            This is what he said:
            “Scott, the kind of balance you’re talking about is an illusion. No one has that kind of control. There is another state that is much more realistic. It is one where you’re continually off balance - always about to fall forward, in fact. In order to prevent it you’ve got to put one foot out in front of you. It happens over and over again. It’s called walking. It has much to recommend it. Try it.”
            Yes, there was the requisite hair-tearing, but his analogy also struck a deep chord and brought together disparate ideas that were years in their making. What I realized was that, rather than seeking balance as a rabbi, I needed to seek poise.
             I first studied the Rambam’s Shemoneh Perakim with my dad, years ago, where I learned that to be a rabbi is to be a physician of the soul. It is a beautiful idea, but, I must confess, even in rabbinical school I realized that it was not my metaphor.
            Rather than being a doctor, I have always wanted to be a dancer. It is not something that I often speak about, for fear of being thought silly. (This fear is completely accurate. The minute I get down from here, Rabbi Aaron Alexander is going to ask me why I left my leotard at home.)
            This poise, in my mind, is the quality that best defines the teachers that I adore. Rabbi Artson, Reb Mimi, Rabbi Peretz, Rabbi Cohen, Rabbi Barry Katz, Rabbi Brous.  All dance between worlds. None find themselves completely comfortable in any one place. All have learned grace. All teach and act in concert with the motion of the world. And for that, I love them.
            Earlier, Rabbi Peretz taught one of my most treasured pieces of Torah: “If a rabbi is hagun, he will be like dew.” (Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anitHagun comes from the word for anchor. It means balanced, or exactly right. I want to believe, though, that it speaks to the Torah that Rabbi Artson was trying to teach me. The Talmud knows that of all things, the dew has the most balance. No matter how the landscape moves, the dew moves with it. Always wanted, always poised, always resting lightly, moving as the world moves - this is what it means to be hagun, to be poised.
            Friends, to be human is to know that the world turns, and that we turn with it. This turning is a fate we all share, exactly as inexorable as the dawn breaking.
            But there is much to be said about the art of turning: to practice again and again the steps that govern our being, to learn the art of our souls so well that our bodies know the movements even before the step is called, and from this repetition to create something entirely new and wonderful and beautiful.
             To learn to turn well is my highest aspiration. I want to be a dancer.
            This is why, I think, I chose to become a Conservative rabbi. I believe that my teachers understand, more clearly than others, that tradition and creativity are tied to each other far more than the world is willing to admit. To create something extraordinary, we have to be anchored in the past. It is the very definition of the word organic - growing naturally from what came before it. But the opposite is equally true. Make our days new like they were before, teaches Eihah. All things, even the best things, must become new again or risk death. Stasis is an illusion.
            To turn well is always to dance between between creativity and tradition.
            I take comfort in the fact that my aspiration to learn to turn well is not completely insane. It is neither so far above us that we must look heavenward and wonder who will go up to heaven and get it for us, nor is it so distant a possibility that we must look across the sea to find it. It is rather in our mouths and in our hearts. We were born with the ability to change. It is possible.
            And, if you will forgive me the impertinence, it is also an aspiration that I hold for us all, here at this community of peace, Adat Shalom.
            Our world is a world of globalism. It is a world of knowledge in a raging torrent. It is a world, not with one great injustice, but with a thousand medium-sized ones. It is a world of distance, where we sometimes grow up thinking that bread grows in plastic and chickens live in eight pieces. Somehow freeways define our lives rather than neighborhoods, and actually getting to know other people is rare and precious. It is a world where choices overwhelm our ability to choose. It is a world in which balance is not to be found.
            What I propose instead is that Adat Shalom become a community of poise.  This would not be a community like all the rest.  Synagogues have been places to cultivate and strengthen Jewish identity. In this they have been supremely successful - American Jews are deeply proud of their Jewish heritage. But this community would move beyond identity, and use Judaism and Jewish community to answer universal questions. How do we eat sustainably? How do we buy ethically? How do we choose wisely? In short, it would be the place in which we experiment with one question: how do we live?
            In Conservative and Reform synagogues, belief and religiosity have been purposefully
fuzzy. There is good reason for this - the predominant feeling that we American Jews have towards God and the Jewish religion is deep ambivalence. But this community would be a place in which we talked about that ambivalence, listened to each other, and came, in fact, to new belief. Addressing ambivalence requires a deeper engagement with Torah than most are used to. It means a willingness to bring implicit thoughts and concerns and beliefs into explicit discussion; it means a community not of one teacher of Torah, but of five hundred; in a word, it means courage.
            Synagogues have had very high walls. Their place was to provide a refuge away from the outside culture, and to be all things to all people inside the shul walls. This community would drop its walls, and understand exactly where and when it is. It would be deeply involved in the local concerns of West Los Angeles, forming partnerships: with other synagogues, with the churches to our west and our east, perhaps even with the mosque to the south.
            It would become a place which has personal connection at its heart, in which neighbors are to talked to, engaged in important conversations, and brought into friendship. In which what happens in members’ homes is as important as what happens in the sanctuary, and where interaction goes beyond a wave and a smile. It would be a place for that rarest of commodities in these times - the chance to form relationships of worth and care.
            This, I believe, is a community of poise, a community that dances as the world turns. Such a community will require a lot of change, and may not resemble what we have known before, but it is also the one that best reflects our values. For the last eight months I have been listening, and everything I have told you has come from what you have told . In the end, this is the community we all want.
            I am grateful for the opportunity to build this community with you, and for the privilege of being your rabbi.