Friday, November 14, 2008

Good Enough

In an essay entitled Thinking Shabbat, Rabbi Larry Kushner makes an interesting observation. Shabbat is created when God rests on the 7th day - that rest is like the sense of relief that we all get when we complete a big project. We let out a sigh, collapse on our couch and feel good about what we accomplished, right?

But, what was the last stage of creation, the last thing that God did before resting? It was the creation of human beings. That makes sense, right? I mean, we are the pinnacle of creation. Not so fast, says Kushner:
[People] are not perfect. We are the unstable element, the restless ones. Too hungry for our own good, covetous, oversexed, neurotic, and conflicted. But we are part of creation, so therefore, on account of us, creation is incomplete, unstable, and imperfect.

In theory, God should be anything but relaxed. After all, God just created the very thing guaranteed to muck up this wonderful world that was just created, right? God should be frantically planning the next step - how to fix what was just broken. But, no. God, instead, rests. Because, creation may not be perfect. But, creation is done.

So, relax - go easy on yourself. The week you just finished wasn't perfect? You didn't accomplish everything you wanted to? Something you did wasn't quite up to snuff? Take a hint from God. Look at what you did, declare it to be "very good," and have a rest. Enjoy Shabbat. You've earned it.

Just like God did.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shabbat and God

An ancient Midrash (Mechilta, Yitro, Ba-hodesh, 8) teaches that a person who violates Shabbat is a person who denies God's existence. That made good sense in the ancient world, and even now, for those with an Orthodox worldview: God made the world and commanded us to observe Shabbat. Not observing Shabbat, then, is a slap in the face to God. Imagine that I built you a house, and said that I'd let you live in it for free, so long as you kept one bedroom set aside for me to use when I come to visit. Then, when I visit, I see that you've converted it into a home office - how incredibly rude! The only reason that we would every treat God this way, the thinking goes, is if we don't believe that God really created the world. It's denying God's dominion over, and ownership of, the world. That's why Shabbat violation is such a major transgression in traditional Judaism.

Of course, as liberal Jews, our understanding of God and the world is very different. Most of us don't believe that God literally created the world, as it says in the Torah. And so, it doesn't necessarily follow, with the same directness, that violating Shabbat is denying God.

So, given that, the question arises: what does it mean, as a modern, Reform Jew, to say that "violating Shabbat is denying God's existance"? What does it mean to violate (or observe) Shabbat and, more importantly, how does that tie in so directly with God's reality? I don't know that the question has an answer, but I suspect that trying to answer it will tell us a lot about what it means to be a Reform believer, and a Reform Shabbat observer.

Burying Books

The Hillel school is preparing to bury a number of books - there's a long tradition of burial for worn out sifrei kodesh (holy books), since we aren't supposed to throw out any book with God's name in it. I had a chance to meet with some of the students to talk about putting together a ceremony for the burial, and in preparing, I came across an interesting idea.

Jeffrey Spitzer makes a link between the Jewish tradition of treating our books with respect and our tradition of conflating the name of the book with the name of the author. It's very common in Judaism for a author to start to be referred to simply by the name of his (or her) book. So, the author of Arba'ah Turim becomes known as Ba'al Turim (the owner of Turim), and the writer of Sefat Emet becomes known simply as Sefat Emet. It's as if the author and the work become, almost literally, one and the same.

Books in Judaism are more than just books - they become the living embodiment of the content. Jews have always seen books as something almost alive - to us, reading a book is like reading the mind of the author (which is why reading Torah is such a holy act - when you think about who wrote that!).

Given that, a book burial becomes more than just a polite way to show respect and reverence for books. It becomes, instead, the natural outcome of this book-view. What I'm trying to say is that we don't bury books because it's respectful; we bury books because, symbolically, they're people. We would no more throw out a sacred book than we would dispose of a loved one!

It's an interesting connection - it made a practice I already appreciated even more meaningful, and quite touching.

I asked the kids - if you were going to become a book, what would the title be. Any one reading this care to offer a title for their book?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why don't more people observe Shabbat

So, we've got our Shabbat Task Force going, and I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashana about Shabbat, and tomorrow night we start one of two classes this year about Shabbat. Throw in this blog and regular mention in the Bulletin, and it's pretty clear that we're trying really hard to make Shabbat "better" here at Beth Am (I went with the quotes around "better" because what it means for Shabbat to be better is a complex question, which I'm going to ignore, for now). But, the question which hasn't been talked about a lot is: why do we need to do this? Why isn't it already happening?

I can't think of a time when I've described Shabbat (to an adult) and they didn't find it, at least in part, resonating with them. Granted, I meet a skewed poplulation, but who doesn't think that more time for trancendance, spirituality and deep, renewing rest are good things? If that's so, why aren't people flocking to synagogue for Shabbat? Why does this require a Task Force, and a blog, and...

One reason, which is certainly valid, at least in part, is that we don't do Shabbat well - that we (not just Beth Am, but synagogues in general) don't offer a Shabbat which fulfills the promise. That's what the Task Force is about, I guess - how can we make the actual Shabbat here at CBA better match our idealized Shabbat. But, another opinion entirely comes from Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a well-known, and astoundingly prolific, thinker, author and teacher. He believes that the real problem is that our society is so out of sync with the values inherent in Shabbat that we resist Shabbat. We say we want it, but when given the chance, we rebel, because it's so different from what we otherwise know in life. Check out the full article - it's not very long - and tell me what you think!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sanctuaries and Seats

I just submitted a Bulletin article talking about the seating arrangement in the Sanctuary. As many/most of you know, we've been experimenting with a semi-circular arrangement of chairs, rather than using the bimah, whenever possible. The article talks about why we do this - about the philosophy and theology which underlies our seating arrangement.

But, I thought that this blog would be a good way for anyone who wants to to offer an opinion of their own. Do you like the "new" arrangement, or do you prefer the "regular" version? And, more importantly - why? What do you or don't you like about it?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A last look at Noah

The great commentator Rashi makes a comment about the story of Noah which never made sense to me until our Torah study this past Shabbat. The Torah isn't so clear about what the great sin of the world was - what did the people of Noah's generation do to deserve being wiped out? In explaining a couple of the words that the text uses, Rashi suggests that the three sins were theft, idolatry and sexual immorality.

Doesn't something seem disproportionate here? Certainly, those things are bad, but when I hear that an entire generation receives a death-sentence, I expect to see some more serious crimes - death, rape and the like. Why are these the crimes, according to Rashi.

What we discovered together in Torah study was that, to unlock that mystery, you have to look earlier in Rashi's commentary. When describing Noah, the Torah says that he was "righteous in his generation." Why, Rashi asks, do we need to say "in his generation?" Perhaps, he says, it is to teach us that Noah was only righteous when compared to others around him - he was being graded on the curve. Or, perhaps it means that, even surrounded by sinners, Noah managed to stay good. Imagine how much better he could have been, had he lived in a virtuous generation!

So, was Noah only good compared to the shleppers around him, or was he a truly good person, brought down a bit by a bad neighborhood? It's not clear - but it's also not the most important question. The real question is: what happens if we ask that question about ourselves?

Look at Rashi's list of sins - theft, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Would anyone argue that these sins aren't around, in abundance, in our own day and age? Not to be too fire-and-brimstone about it, but aren't we, according to Rashi, living in an age not unlike Noah's? And, if so, if we think of ourselves as good people, then don't we have to ask the question: are we really good, or are we just good in comparison? Could we be proud of who we are, if we aren't graded on the curve?

The important thing is not to answer the question - not to get defensive, or depressed, or egotistical. Rather, the idea is to get humble. To acknowledge that it's not clear, to any of us, how good we "really" are. That, even the most righteous among us have to admit that, were we to be compared to a true tzaddik - a truly righteous person - we might not stack up so well. Most of us are good people, and of that we should be proud. But, that pride should be tempered by knowing that, in all probability, we still have plenty of potential that we leave unfufilled.