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.