Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren and "God Light"

As you may have heard by now, Barak Obama has tapped Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren to give his inaugural address. Many are up in arms about it (it's pandering to the right; Warren is against many Liberal positions; etc). The New Republic had a short blog entry about it, and one of the comments (by "iambiguous") caught my attention. Pardon the lengthy excerpt here:

Think about Rick Warren's commitment to a "purpose driven life". It is the sort of psuedo-philosophical New Age ear candy that pop culture evangelicals lap up by the millions. It's Oprah Winfry and Dr Phil all rolled up into one silly putty psychological agenda whereby you transcend the crass materialism of mindless consumption and the spiritual arridity of self-absorbed narcissism and instead latch on to something that is just so much bigger than anything you had ever hoped to imagine.

Praise Jesus!!

But there's a catch, of course. And it revolves around the manner in which you approach a "purpose" in life as either a means to an end or as an end in itself. After all, could it not be argued that both Hitler and Stalin led purpose driven lives?

That's where it all begins to break down into psychologisms that are never really more than the sum of how you add up the parts. It is just an emotional and psychological scaffolding. It is analogous to someone [like a parent] encouraging a child to "just be yourself" and then when the child decides to be something the parent does not like, the parent says, "but not that". You are encouraged to "find yourself" but when you do, it has to be congruent with the family and community and religious narrative.

Warren is obviously not as dangerous as was Jerry Falwell or as is Pat Robertson. He's no James Dobson or born again wacko. He encourages "civility" above all else. Choosing God is practically just another "lifestyle" you can commit yourself to.

But he still inculcates that servile mentality all religions embrace in the presence of their Lord. He is just more inclined to nudge you in the right direction rather than use the bully pulpit to threaten you with hell and damnation. God light as it were.

I'm not Warren's biggest fan, and I certainly am not a fan of a lot of the pop-religion/philosophy people out there (please don't get me started on The Secret). But, something about this comment was really bugging me, and I'm trying to put it into words.

Of course, there's always a certain inconsistency, or even hypocricy, with these messages of "serve a higher purpose" -- it assumes that we all agree on the right higher purpose (iambiguous is right in that Hitler was, from a certain, sick point of view, serving a higher purpose). It's probably impossible to form a cogent, serious, objective standard to differentiate between those who follow good higher purposes and those who follow evil higher purposes. In other words (not to get too philosphical), there is no rational, objective way to differentiate between good and evil. But, that doesn't mean that there isn't a distinction at all.

"He is just more inclined to nudge you in the right direction rather than use the bully pulpit to threaten you with hell and damnation" - maybe it's this sentence which bugs me most. And, maybe, it's the word "just" that really gets me. The fundamental difference between Rick Warren and Hitler is that one is trying to push us towards caring and helping and embracing, and one was trying to push us to evil and killing. And, even if I can't explain, in logical exactitude, that one is absolutely, irrefutably better than the other, I know that one is better than the other. You know it, too.

Look - one should never try to address fundamental philosophical issues in a short blog posting (and the nature and the reality of morality is probably the fundamental philosophical issue), but if we live in a world where the only discernable difference between Rick Warren and Hitler is their taste in "purpose," then we have enormous problems! Rick Warren isn't my favorite guy - his theology is flawed, his message is often simplistic and his politics are (sorry) wrong, but he should be praised, not criticized, for pushing people to help others, be kinder and try to love more. Because, if we aren't going to value that, then what exactly do we value?

[p.s. I know I keep asking for comments, but I really mean it. What do you think?]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


This year, as in years past, Jewish Family Services has passed out gift-dreidels - each plastic dreidel filled with a bit of candy, and a gift idea. One might say, "a toy for a 3 year old." One might say, "school supplies for a 8 year old." You take a dreidel, then, you buy the gift, pass it on to JFS, and they deliver it to the recipient. Each gift was specifically requested by a particular kid.

My family got a dreidel this past Sunday at our school Chanukah party. We were asked to buy socks for a pre-teen girl. Socks.

You know, I've had good days and bad days this past year, but mostly good days. I don't tend to feel too down, or feel sorry for myself, because I've generally got it very good in life. But, I don't usually realize how good. Never, in my life, have I ever needed socks as a present. Never, when the time of miracles and gifts comes around, have I hoped to get something that basic. That mundane.

I hope the socks go to the person who really wanted them. I hope that next year, they'll be able to ask for something even better.

If you haven't given this year, call JFS at (813) 960-1848.

Shabbat Economics

During our study this past Shabbat, our Shabbat Task Force looked at the following passage:

Because Shabbat is often defined in terms of prohibitions against certain kinds of activities, many American Jews have come to think of Sabbath observance as a series of restrictions, a weekly sentence of self-denial. But Shabbat is not a retreat from the world or an exercise in asceticism. Making Shabbat is not a matter of refraining, but of doing…. Resting, eating and praying are not only permitted, but mandated. There are other verbs for Shabbat too; sleeping, reading, thinking, studying, talking, listening, meditating, visiting the sick, laughing, singing, welcoming guests, making love. But it is not entirely easy to choose even so pleasant and life-giving a discipline as Shabbat…. For chronically over-scheduled people, sitting still for an hour, much less an afternoon, can be a real challenge. However, these are precisely the reasons that many people view Shabbat prohibitions less as sacrifices than as opportunities to reorient an overly hectic life around the need for rest, relaxation, and time with family and close friends.
Anita Diamant, Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions,
Customs and Values for Today’s Families

One of the reactions from our discussion was how much this approach differed from some of the more "traditional" approaches we had seen so far. The feeling was that, in the end, many of the texts we had seen told us that we are to observe Shabbat because, in some way or another, we have to. It's an obligation, one which comes from the outside and, at times, without any reasoning (it's worth noting that, traditionally, all Jewish activity is done, at its core, because God said so). This passage, however, gives a more concrete reason for observing Shabbat - because of how great it can be for us.

It led to a brief discussion of a kind of overlap between Economics and Shabbat. In Economics, we all understand, at least on the simplest level, the idea of a scarce resource. We only have so much money. A great deal of it, most of it, for most of us, is spent on overhead - things that are out of our immediate control. Subtract rent, car payments, utilities, food and such from our paychecks, and there isn't always a lot left over to play with. So, how we spend that money becomes a matter of great concern and attention. Without even getting into moral decisions (e.g. how much goes to charity), we all realize, on some level, that we have to decide what we want more - an iPod or a nice dinner out? New clothes, or more books? Few of us have so much money that we can spend it without thinking about whether this item is worth this much to us.

What we often fail to realize is that we have an even scarcer resource, about which we have to have the same conversation: our time. Most of our time is spent on "overhead." Add up the time I need for sleep, and other necessities, and there isn't much time left for "discretionary spending." And, so, how I choose to spend that time becomes very important.

Shabbat is a day which is meant for careful spending of our time. Why do we not go shopping on Shabbat? Whether or not I believe that "God doesn't want you to shop," I still have to ask the question, "is this the best use of these few hours, right now?" Sure, my house needs cleaning, but my kids need attention, too. Of course, there are dozens of "to-do's" floating around, but I need to rest. On Shabbat, we try to only spend time on that which deserves our time. We set it aside as a time for the holy, not the mundane. The meaningful, not the empty.

Try it out - dedicate one Shabbat, or even part of one Shabbat, for paying attention only to things which really matter to you. What would that look like? What is worth your most precious commodity: your time?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An unwanted Shabbat

I'll pass on a confession that I made to some of the people who were at least week's Shabbat study: sometimes, I really don't want to come to synagogue on Shabbat.

I doubt it came as that great of a surprise to many, although some may have not expected me to admit to this. But, last week was one of those times when I just didn't want to be here. I had had a long week - not a bad week, just long. Lots of catch up from vacation at work. Many meetings. A cat who, feeling neglected after being alone for a week, was waking me up several times a night. By the time I drove my son home from school on Friday afternoon, the thought of the oncoming Shabbat was anything but peaceful. Rather than lead services, give a sermon, come back for more study, more prayer and then more study, I just wanted to be in bed.

But, the strangest thing happened. When I got here on Friday night, I wasn't exactly thrilled, but maybe something like "content." I started seeing people who had come for services - mostly our regulars and a guest or two. Services started, and that kind of religious auto-pilot kicks in, where I don't have to do much except for pray, until it's time to talk. Basically, without me realizing it, I had gotten into Shabbat - my energy had come back, my sense of peace had come back.

The same thing the next morning - I can't say that I jumped out of bed, dying to get to synagogue as fast as possible. But, soon enough, I was engaged in good discussions in our Torah study, and wonderful service with a group of people there just to pray and explore a bit, and then some more study. Tiring, but exciting and fun, too.

It was a good reminder for me - sometimes Shabbat is work. Sometimes, I have to force myself to "do Shabbat." But, it's not work for long, because when I'm really "doing" Shabbat, then things just work - Shabbat really does become a time of rest, rejuvenation and, most importantly, holiness.

How about you - have ever come here reluctantly, only to be surprised by truly finding Shabbat?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Leave God alone on Shabbat!

The section of our service known as the Tefillah (it's also known as the Amidah or the Shemona Esrei) follows a distinct pattern. It opens and closes with three blessings, and those blessings are meant, in large part, to act as a frame for what comes in-between. During the week, that middle part contains 13 (or, in our prayerbook, 12) requests - requests for health, wisdom, salvation, and so on. On Shabbat, we replace those requests with one prayer, a prayer which asks for nothing, but instead acknowledges the holiness of Shabbat.

The traditional reason given for this Shabbat alternative is that it's innapropriate to ask for something on Shabbat. Shabbat is supposed to be the time when we act as if the world is perfect, and we want for nothing. Making a request of God would break that illusion, so we don't do it.

While looking at these prayers this past Shabbat, before I talked about the traditional reasoning for the Shabbat Amidah, I asked if anyone there had any theories as to the reason behind the change. Someone suggested that perhaps it was because God deserved rest, too - it would be improper to distrub God's Shabbat with a request.

In a way, it's the same answer, but also very different, because it puts the focus on God, not on us. I had never heard this take on it before, and I found it wonderful - insightful, but also lovely. Of course, we can't literally ruin God's Shabbat. But, metaphorically, I think it's powerful to think of Shabbat as so sacred, that simply bugging God with our concerns is illegal.

Shabbat can offer so much to us, personally. But, when we start looking out for others as well, we might start to truly make Shabbat more than restful. We might make it holy, as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


The horrific attacks in Mumbai happened while I was on vacation, so I didn't really hear as much about them as I usually would have, and I definitely didn't think or speak about them as much, either. But, now that I'm back, I've been trying to get my head around this atrocity.

George Zucker forwarded me an article by Dennis Prager which wonders why, exactly, would Pakistani terrorists, attacking India, make time to also attack a Chabad house? To him (and, to me) it's a sign of how deeply seated Anti-Semitism is among some - Islamicist terrorists of today, the Nazis of yesterday. And, he also takes time to mention that this has ramifications for the rest of the world, as well:
For years I have warned that great evils often begin with the murder of Jews, and therefore non-Jews who dismiss Jew-hatred (aka anti-Semitism, aka anti-Zionism), will learn too late that Jew- and Israel-haters only begin with Jews but never end with them.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments about this article.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A New Prayerbook

If you've come to Shabbat morning services recently, on a Shabbat when a new Bar/t Mitzvah isn't being called to the bimah for the first time, you've gotten a chance to experiment with a draft version of the Reform Movement's new siddur (prayerbook), Mishkan Tefillah. Mishkan Tefillah is a very different siddur from Gates of Prayer, in terms of it's layout, language, philosophy and much more.

I've heard from a few people, casually, what they think about this new siddur, but I'd love to hear more. So, tell me - what do you think about it? What do you like, and what don't you like about it?

It's not at all certain that this will become our "official" siddur, but there's a decent enough chance that it will (although there's a lot of time and process between here and there!), so I'd like to start hearing opinions now. So - what do you think?

Chanukah Lights and Holiness

I'm just back from a week of vacation (happy belated Thanksgiving to all), so I apologize for a week of non-posting. While I'm trying to think of something interesting to say myself, check out this short, but lovely, posting from one of my teachers, Joel Hoffman about holiness and the chanukah lights.

Hard to believe, but Chanukah is only 2 1/2 weeks away!