Friday, February 24, 2012

Ich bin a Yid

Parshat Terumah
1 Adar 5772
February 24th, 2012

Yesterday might have contained my greatest moment of 5772. A 78 year-old African-American preacher grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said with considerable charm, “Ich bin a Yid in my heart.”*

I must admit, it was awesome.

The irony of my pleasure in this moment is that I get quite touchy when non-Jews claim Jewish identity or affinity. I have seen some very strange appropriations of Judaism over the years: non-Jews at Krakow’s klezmer music festival, wearing hassidische clothing, quoting stories of the rebbes, with interest only in Jews long dead; Christian biblical fundamentalists who mistakenly believe that they share our essence because they are Old Testament focused (they’ve never heard of the Talmud); Messianics claiming ownership over Torah, including the disgraceful “coronation” of Bishop Eddie Long with a Torahscroll. 

At issue is the nature of identity, and the question of how people relate to identities that they partially share, but do not wholly inhabit.

In our time, each of us is an amalgamation of identities. It’s true: our global culture exposes us, quite felicitously, to external identities in such a way that they take residence in our soul. There is a part of me that is an American at the founding of this country, a part in a yeshiva in Lithuania. There is a part of me that is black, a part that is gay, a part Latino, Asian, Eastern European, Southern, East Coast, and so on. The nature of our era is that we exist as hybrids.

But I am nonetheless conscious of my central identity: a Jew in America. And though I may inhabit others in a partial way, it is only as an American Jew that I am an arbiter and influencer – only in that realm where I can speak to the destiny of my identity.

With the contemporary sharing of identities has come arrogance: the fallacy that because I am influenced by another culture, I have a right to define that culture. This is why Jews get uncomfortable with outpourings of Evangelical love – it comes with a definition about us and our future (eventually coming to love Christ) that we reject. We do not want to be known as future converts. It is invasive.

Therefore, the response to the identities shared with us must be humility. When others share their identities with us they give us a gift, not a commodity to be consumed and controlled.  Ultimately this is why I loved my preacher friend, for in his eyes was kindness, not ownership.

“Words of Torah can only exist in one of humble mind.”
-Talmud, Masekeht Ta’anit

* Yiddish for “I am a Jew.” It loses something in the translation.

Friday, February 17, 2012



Parshat Mishpatim
24 Shvat, 5772
February 17th, 2012

I’ve been sick for the last four days.

It’s nothing serious, thank God. Enough of a cold to make me wish I could detach my own head for a while, but nothing more than discomfort.

But it did get me thinking. 

Being sick reminded me of a uncomfortable truth, which is that to live is to be at war. On the microscopic level, our bodies are more or less constantly in battle. Scientists estimate that the parasites on planet Earth outnumber us free-standing organism by a factor of 3 to 1. We are always under attack.

So you have to wonder, then, what health really is. Is it the illusory state that existed only before the onslaught of life? Is health sterility - the eradication of all harmful influences?

My guess is that the answer is no. It’s negotiating those challenges that makes us healthy, not avoiding them. Health is not pristine.

This is the magnificent truth of our bodies: “Do not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by die; Not the disease that comes in darkness, nor the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand will fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand - but they shall not come close to you.” (Psalm 91)

Every moment of health is a wonderful overcoming, a show of grace against great odds. As the sick know, every second of health’s preeminence is worthy of gratitude.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Choice vs. Journey


Parshat Yitro
17 Shvat, 5772
February 10th, 2012

I suppose I do not have the bona fides to the critique the plethora of choice in our world, as I am certainly a child of choice. I live a half-extremely religious, half-secularly engaged lifestyle unthinkable in centuries previous. I am defined by the ability to choose, minutely and freely, the exact kind of life I want to live. So who am I to talk?

But at the same time, I am sad that we are so glutted with choice. The amount of it is overwhelming. There’s so much of it that our brains have dropped other faculties (memorization, calculation) and function as eternal selectors:  not just private or public, but which private? And should we go charter? Not just Apple or PC, but which of these 13 billion little apps do I need to download to my i-pad to make sure I survive the weekend?

What makes me sad is that I believe our ease of selection preempts the possibility of real internal search. It’s as if all of us are art critics, none of us artists. We choose constantly, but do we have the chance to journey towards meaningful choice? Are we allowed to reap the rewards that come from internal struggle and the necessary rigors of finding our place within systems that seem foreign to us?

The Talmud in Ta’anit has a piece of advice for teachers: “if a student is ready, ‘bring water to the thirsty;’ if a student is not ready ‘let the thirsty come get water.’” This means that there is a journey each student must take before s/he is ready for Torah. But our world treats us as if we are eternally ready, dropping all the knowledge and wisdom and opportunity that can be found in a heap at our feet, whether we are prepared for such or not.

So I say: make space for yourself not to be ready; make space not to know or understand; make space for everything not to be revealed right now. Give yourself the chance to journey.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


8 Shvat, 5772
February 1st 2012

It’s hard to comprehend the vastness of the universe.
Think about this: We inhabit one of the outer spiral arms of our galaxy, the Milky Way. We’re not quite in the boondocks – more like the galactic Akron, Ohio.

We are roughly 27,000 light years from our galactic center. The Milky Way itself contains about 300 billion stars. 

The Milky Way itself is one of 54 galaxies of the Local Group. The Group has a 10 million light year diameter.

The Local Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster – 100 groups of galaxies and 110 million light years across.

There are about 10 million superclusters in the visible universe.

What’s crazy is that our technology – the Hubble telescope in particular – allows our reach to obliterate our grasp. We can see with clarity objects over 13 billion light years away. It takes so long for their light to reach us that anything we see is a glimpse into the early history of the universe, within 400 million years of the Big Bang itself.

That’s just cool.

I find it interesting that the realization of the universe’s size has not had more effect upon contemporary religious belief. To believe in our God is to believe God created literally everything. How do we account for the fact that we are, in universal terms, of miniscule account? How do we understand our relationship with a God who created reality on a scale so large that we are not built to comprehend it?

 300 words cannot do the topic justice, but I can tell you that the vastness of the universe makes most of our local religious conflicts look pretty silly. The doctrinal differences that have actually led human beings to kill each other just can’t be that important to a God so large. The enormity of the universe injects some much needed perspective into religious affairs.

So the next time someone worries that too much English in the service is going bring the End of Days, I’ll simply think of the Virgo Supercluster…