Friday, December 18, 2009

A Rabbi and a bomb-sniffing dog walk into Montana

Did you hear the one about the Rabbi and the Israeli bomb-sniffing dog in Helena, Montana? Check it out.

My favorite line of the day? Clearly it’s:

And yet, in a minor revival, Montana now has three rabbis, two in Bozeman and one (appropriately) in Whitefish.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Standing up to all fanatics – even our own

Last week, some Jewish settlers in Israel vandalized a mosque in a Yasuf, a village south of Nablus. These representatives of our Loving God:

set fire to a carpet and to a library in the mosque's second floor, destroying holy books.

They also sprayed abusive statements in Hebrew on the walls and floor. Graffiti messages included …"We will burn the lot of you."

Upon hearing of this desecration of a holy place, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leader of what’s being called “Open Orthodoxy” led a small contingent of religious Jews to the mosque to stand in solidarity with the Muslims of that community.

Wearing their kippot, Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and Rabbi Yair Silverman, formerly of Beth Israel of Berkley CA and now rabbi of Moed in the Zichron Yaakov community in Israel, told a crowd outside the mosque: “We come in peace to express deep pain for what occurred. We condemn it with all our hearts and souls. As a people that has experienced such desecration, we come to reach out to you in the spirit of brotherhood.”

It’s important for us all to remember that fanatics come in all shapes, colors and religions. A Jewish fanatic is no better than a Muslim, Catholic or Atheist Fanatic. Someone who sets fire to another person’s holy place and sacred books is a criminal – in both religious and secular terms.

I think that it’s absolutely incumbent, especially on those who are of the same religion, to speak out when these travesties happen. Thank God for people like Rabbi Weiss who are willing to, in this case literally, reach out to members of that community and let them know that Jews who understand the core messages of our tradition do not condone or accept these kinds of vicious attacks. This is not Judaism, and if I were in Israel, I would gladly had stood with Rabbi Weiss and the residents of Yasuf, and never with those who desecrated their mosque in the name of our God.

Friday, December 11, 2009

“C” is for “Chanukah,” that’s good enough for me

OK, so maybe it isn’t quite as historically accurate or nuanced as that Op Ed piece, but Talia will certainly enjoy this one more:


The Real Op Ed of Chanukah

Chanukah is not a cute holiday. Despite the cutification* of the day, the real story of Chanukah is violent, ironic, troubling and very relevant to us, politically and religiously.

* cutification (n): to make something cuter. I just made that up.

Much to my surprise, the New York Times ran an Op Ed this morning, written by David Brooks, explaining the real story. It is, quite frankly, one of the most cogent and concise descriptions of the holiday – the actual story, and some important, often overlooked morals – that I’ve seen.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

If all you know about is some oil that burned for longer than it should have, then take 5 minutes and give this a read!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Greatest. Recording. Ever?

So, if Neil Diamond were to ever cover Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” would it create some kind of kitsch, pop-culture black hole, which would immediately suck up all of the universe into it’s so-uncool-it’s-cool vortex?

Wonder no longer, people.


God help me. I can’t stop listening.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I don’t have much to say about this, by way of commentary. Just try to find 10 minutes and a quiet room, and watch this beautiful, powerful short.

Basic Religion, as taught by a rebel Evangelical

An old friend of mine recently posted a link on Facebook. When a Rabbi posts an Esquire article by an Evangelical, which had been pointed out to him by a Catholic scholar, it’s probably worth checking out.

Shane Claiborne is, apparently, an Evangelical who isn’t too popular with other Evangelicals, because he keeps preaching that they (the Evangelicals) should be more like Jesus. His article is, essentially, about how we (he is mostly talking about Churches, but I’d include Jewish organizations, and probably all religious institutions) keep forgetting the actual, core teachings of our religious traditions:

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

It’s obvious that Claiborne and I have very different theologies and beliefs – he clearly believes in the literal Divinity of Jesus, and I can only assume that, when he talks about the Afterlife, he is talking about something in which I ardently do not believe. But, when he says things like:

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David...

it becomes apparent that, as different as our theologies might be, our philosophies, and our values, overlap quite a bit.

“They” pray that God’s will will be done on earth, just as it is in heaven. “We” pray that we, with God, will “perfect the world under God’s rule.” There isn’t a whole lot of difference there, I’d wager. I’m not saying that Jews and Christians are all the same – I strenuously believe that, in many important, even fundamental ways, we’re very, very different. I’d generally rather celebrate and embrace those differences, rather than try to smooth them over. But, it’s at least as important to remember that, deep down, we share very much in common. And, in the end, what we’re all trying to do is create a world which is better, kinder and more holy than the one which we inherited.

Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter.

Amen, brother. Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Give Turkey to God

You know, there's a really strange, quirky coincidence with Hebrew. The word hodu can mean "Thanks." It's the root of the word Todah, which means "thank you."

But, for reasons I don't know, Hodu also means "Turkey." Which means that Yom Hodu could mean "Turkey Day" or "Thanks Day." Or, a bit more colloquially, "Thanksgiving Day."

Hodu L'Adonai, Ki Tov - Let's give thanks, and Turkey, to God!

Happy Hodu Day to all!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How we doin?

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, was famous for walking around the busy streets of the city and asking anyone he ran into, "So, how am I doin'?" It was a way for him to get some unvarnished feedback (very unvarnished, probably), and stay in touch with those who didn't normally have access to him. He said it was an invaluable part of his time as mayor.

I was just remembering that one of the original purposes of this blog was to solicit feedback from CBA members - to ask "how we doin'?" to those who might not normally feel that they have a way to speak up. In reality, the blog has focused more on general Jewish issues, and less on CBA specific matters, but that doesn't mean that we have to completely give up on that goal! So, to all of the CBA members out there, let me ask you:

How we doin'?

If there is something going on here that you want to chime in about - either to support it, or to make suggestions - then please do! If the Web is good for anything, it's good for freedom of speech, so speak up!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I can be humble, even if I'm right

In this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sara, our patriarch Abraham attempts to buy a plot of land on which to bury his wife, Sarah.  The negotiations between Abraham and Efron the Hittite are given in, what is for the Torah, extreme detail.  Which, as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notices (in the wonderful The Bedside Torah), makes it all the more interesting that Abraham leaves out one very important detail: he has already been promised this land by God.  All of the land of Israel, according to what we read earlier, will belong to Abraham and his heirs, for all time.  Why does Abraham feel the need to negotiate, at all?

Why indeed?  Aren't there people today who claim an exclusive possession of the truth, who insist that their monopoly on morality, or compassion, or divine will, allows them to slander, to slight, to distort, or to oppress?  From the liberal chic to the conservative smug, all over the world self-appointed spokespeople of the “correct” view trumpet their own infallibility and moral superiority.

It's not that Abraham doubts that this land already belongs to him.  He has, after all, been told by God – directly! —that the land is, in fact, his.  But Abraham doesn't confuse a firm belief in the truth with a license to be arrogant, and to impose that truth on others, others who might see the world differently.

Without relinquishing his own convictions, Abraham never abandoned the religious humility that accepts the possibility of being wrong.

Now, if only we can get the rest of Abraham’s descendants to see the world in the same way…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kosher, Vegeterian, Flexitarian

It's been about a month since I blogged about the ethical implications of eating meat*.  Last week, at the URJ Biennial (the major convention of Reform Judaism), the head of the URJ, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, spoke on this very same topic.  He encouraged Reform Jews to consider giving up, or at least highly reducing their consumption of, red meat (I have no idea why he didn't include other kinds of meat, as well).  There were, however, several parts of his sermon which have been causing some controversy.

* I've since learned a new word: Flexitarian. Someone who isn't vegetarian, but consciously attends to avoid meat, when possible. 

First of all, some have complained that this, and one of his other topics (the use of technology in our synagogue), were unworthy of our attention, given the state of the world, the economy, and the Reform movement.  Perhaps, some say, this was a time for bigger ideas.

Some found it hypocritical that, during a sermon in which he was encouraging us to eat less meat, largely for environmental reasons, he was drinking from a plastic water bottle.  I’ll be honest -- I agree, but can't get too fired up about it.  It's not that big of a deal.

The largest amount of criticism, at least that I've heard, centers around his framing of this issue as “not about kashrut (keeping kosher):”

What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.

In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that "Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine." …

Nonetheless, we - as a Movement - have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.

I think that this was a mistake, on a couple of levels.  First of all, the word “kosher” really just means “fit,” or in this context, “fit to eat.” So, if red meat isn't (equally) fit to eat, then it isn't kosher. Whether not he wanted to say it this way, what Rabbi Yoffie was really doing was expressing a vision of “Reform Kashrut.” I understand why, I think, he didn't want to frame it this way: the debate about what “kosher” and “eco-kosher” and “Reform Kosher” mean is often frustrating, and it's easy to get bogged down in the philosophical discussions, and lose track of the important, practical point he was trying to make -- we really should be eating less red meat.  But, part of me still wishes he was willing to try to reclaim such an important word, and concept, from our tradition.

I think he also made a big mistake in dismissing Reform Jews’ adherence to a more traditional understanding of kashrut as a specific set of dietary laws.  I remember learning one time that something like 50% of all Reform Jews follow some of the laws of kashrut. They may not eat pork, for example, even though they may not be concerned at all about how an animal was slaughtered. Kashrut, even in its more common understanding, simply isn't irrelevant too many Reform Jews.  It's a shame that Rabbi Yoffie didn't acknowledge that, and was even somewhat dismissive of the idea.

As always, I'd love to get comments from anyone reading this.  But, I'm especially interested in hearing from the Reform Jews out there: do you, in any way, keep kosher?  What do you think of the idea of eating less meat as a Jewish practice?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


If you haven’t been seeing them, the JCC is filming a regular piece called “Yiddishology” – asking various people in the community to try to define a Yiddish term (quote contest! Can anyone name the movie, actor or anything about this quote: “It’s not translatable. That’s why it’s in Yiddish”). They’re fun*, and worth checking out.

* not as much fun as the wonderful teachings given by local Rabbis, but not bad…

If you’re not on the JCC’s e-list, and you want to be, just click here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Flooding the world with anger

The story of Noah's Ark is actually a very troubling story*.  It's pretty terrible to think about God wiping out all of humanity, no matter how bad we may have gotten.  But, even if you think that people had it coming to them, what about the animals?  God slaughtered nearly every animal on earth, all because of something that people did.

* does anyone else find it strange that we take a story about the utter moral corruption of all of humanity, and the subsequent ultimate, horrific divine retribution, and then use it as a theme for decorating our children's bedrooms? I do…

Very often, rabbis and other commentators try to apologize for, or at least explain, the seeming unfairness of God in this story.  But, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has a different approach.  He suggests that we're actually supposed to be learning a lesson from God, but in this case, not in the usual “let's all be like God” sense:

Even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness,” destruction bursts beyond manageable or fair limitations.  Even punishments originally intended to be measured and reasonable provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship…Once violence is launched, Rashi [the great medieval commentator] suggests, there is no foretelling its sweep or its destruction. 

Everyone gets angry, and everyone lashes out from time to time.  Very often, when we do, we justify our actions.  But, the fact that we had a reason to be angry, the fact that we may have been justified in our outburst, doesn't make it right.  When we unleash our anger, more often than not, innocents suffer.  Others are caught up in the anger.  The fact that that wasn't what we intended doesn't absolve us of our responsibility.  On the contrary, we’re even more responsible when we hurt those who didn't deserve it, in the least.

I once heard of a certain type of person described as “a skunk.” That’s a person who, when they feel scared or threatened, lashes out with nastiness.  But, it's never only their target who suffers.  Very often, someone else gets hit, as well – it’s hard to aim this stuff, after all.  And, in any case, there is a nasty, noxious stench left behind, which makes the room unbearably unpleasant to be in, for everyone.  Have you ever been an innocent bystander in a meeting, when one person attacks another? You know what I mean.

Look, even God is susceptible to this.  None of us are perfect.  But, the next time we're about to open our mouths, and attack someone else, let's ask ourselves if it’s really necessary, and if it's worth making others suffer, as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Human Rights in Israel

In an Op-Ed piece today, Robert Bernstein, the former head of Human Rights Watch, speaks out against HRW’s treatment of Israel. He says, very clearly, what others have already said: Israel is treated incredibly unfairly by the international community, especially in terms of its Human Rights.

[The Middle East] is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.

There can be no doubt that, over the years, Israel has done immoral things. Very often, probably most often, they are perpetrated by individuals (as opposed to being official policy) and, with shocking frequency, they are policed by their own system – the military, the Supreme Court, the press and the public all have admirable records of speaking out when Israel steps over the line. That, not perfection of conduct, is the reasonable hallmark of a just society – how they respond to wrongs committed by their own.

I’ll admit to being very disturbed by some recent reports that, more recently, misconduct may have been more openly condoned, and even encouraged, by higher-ups. But, I’ll also admit that, given how many times Israel has been accused of atrocities, only to have those accusations turn out to be made up out of whole cloth, I’m a bit dubious about the accusations. I’m at least willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, until I’m convinced otherwise.

I am not, and never will be, part of the “Israel can do no wrong” camp (actually, I’ve only heard about those people; I’ve never actually met one). But, the next time some group accuses Israel of Human Rights violations, ask yourself if this same group has spoken out, with even close to the same frequency, against the oppressive regimes of Israel’s neighbors, or against the ongoing Human Rights violations in China, or against the ongoing Genocide in Darfur, or against…you get the idea.

Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

Israel is not perfect, not by a long shot. But, by just about any reasonable standard, they have behaved incredibly morally in the most difficult of situations. Groups like Human Rights Watch do themselves a huge disservice when they single Israel out for such harsh criticism. They deserve better. They’ve earned it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Mistakes of Hatred

Looking through my files, I came across a teaching by “Diane” – I have no idea who actually wrote this, so my apologies to her. Anyway, she is commenting on a very disturbing midrash (Genesis Rabbah 17:6) which notices that the first occurrence of the letter samech (makes an “s” sound) in the Torah is during the creation of Eve. So, this ancient text teaches, we can learn from this that Satan, which starts with the same sound*, didn’t enter the world until woman was created. Nice, huh?**

* yes, Satan appears in Rabbinic literature, although he is nothing like the Satan that we see in Christianity and popular culture.

** My teacher, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz***, would now say, “Not a good teaching to use on Sisterhood Shabbat.”

*** Yes, Lenny Kravitz was one of my Rabbinical School teachers. The man can rock out, AND teach Midrash. Very prolific.

One problem. Satan is spelled with the letter sin, not samech. Same sound, different letter. There is no connection, none whatsoever, linguistically speaking, between satan and woman. So, the larger connection which the ancient writer is trying to draw is equally invalid.

The lesson that Diane, our modern writer, draws is this:

The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake…thinking the introduction of femininity…is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech

I’ll be we can take it a step further. The idea that any group is, simply by their being created, responsible for bringing evil into the world is dumb. It’s actually narrow-minded bigotry like that which brings evil to the world!

Luckily, this guy isn’t racist. Not at all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It is not good for man to be alone

The Creation story is famous for its list of things that are “good,” but it’s less often noticed that there is one thing in creation which is not good – Genesis 2:18 tells us that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and that’s why God makes Eve. We are not made to be solitary; we’re meant to be with a partner. A mate. We were made for marriage, literally.

I love that teaching (which is why some of you have heard it before!), but I don’t remember ever connecting it with the realization that other religions don’t share this view. I recently read a d’var torah which pointed out that, for example, Catholicism sees marriage not as an ideal, but as a concession. In Catholicism, celibacy is the ideal.

So, to my Catholic friends who read this (or anyone to whom this applies), I have two questions: firstly, is this a fair representation of Catholic doctrine, or did the Rabbi get it wrong? And, if it is accurate, can you explain it? I don’t meant that in an accusatory way, it’s just that I’ve never thought too much about how far apart we are on this. I’ve always known that Judaism and Catholicism have very different views on sex, marriage and the like, but I never realized how fundamentally this issue might speak to our view of human nature. Any of you care to shed some light on why the Catholic church holds this view?

A Jewish Brain

In a recent NY Times piece, David Brooks wrote about the incredibly fascinating new field of Social Cognitive Neuroscience. It’s trying to understand how biology both affects and is affected by behavior (or, to put it somewhat pithily, how “the outside” interacts with “my inside”). Some of the studies involved hooking subjects up to brain scanners, and seeing what’s happening under different situations, but looking at the data through some social lenses. So, for example, what happens in the brains of Red Sox fans vs. Yankees fans when they watch baseball? How do different nationalities react to violence, at the neural level? It’s a cool article, and it sounds like some interesting science.

Here’s the one line, really offered in passing, which got my attention:

Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own.

Notice, it doesn’t say that Jews were equally sensitive to the pain of others, but that they were more sensitive. I’m shocked by that, because, for better or for worse, Judaism encourages taking care of our own family (literally and figuratively) before taking care of others. Not to ignore others, but to set up concentric rings of responsibility – my own immediate family, my extended family, my friends, my community, Jews, the world.

But, according to this insight, we actually, on some level, care more for those further from us than those closer to us, at least in some instances. I don’t know exactly what to make of that. Does that speak well of us, that we are so universally caring? Does it speak to the breakdown of those circles of responsibility – is this a modern phenomenon that’s the result of an disaffection among Jews? I’m not really sure.

Anyone have any theories?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Vegetarianism and Judaism

I don't think I've ever really thought about it this way before, but food has always been a big part of my self-identity.  When I was a child, I was the skinny kid who hated food – my parents put “I'm not hungry” as my quote on the baseball cards they had made up for me for my Bar Mitzvah.  When I started getting more interested in my Judaism in college, beginning to keep kosher (something I had declared, just a month or two earlier, I would never do) was a big part of that transition, and it remains a centrally important part of my own Jewish practice.

Over the past few years, I've struggled quite a bit (theologically speaking) with my relationship with meat.  It's been around15 years since I decided that I would only eat kosher meat in my home (I continued to eat non-kosher meet outside of my house, mostly as a concession to my own weakness).  I stuck to that, fairly strictly, until, a couple of years ago, I became aware of the abuses that were commonplace in kosher slaughterhouses – of the workers and, more relevantly here, of the animals.  I had always learned that one of the laws of kashrut was to prevent all pain during slaughter.  As a disturbing secret video produced by PETA clearly showed, that couldn't be farther from the reality.

I'm skipping over a good deal of study, contemplation, and angst, but eventually I decided (along with Hillary) that it felt more consonant with Jewish ideals to eat meat from animals which had been well cared for, as opposed to slaughtered in accordance with the laws of kashrut (it is possible to find meat which satisfies both sets of requirements, but it's difficult, and wildly expensive).  But, I've also been aware (although often too willing to ignore) how hard it is to ensure that the animals from which we get our meat were truly treated humanely.  There's very little regulation or oversight of the various labels we see on food, and the government's definition of “humane” tends to differ greatly from how most of us would use that word.  In other words, I've slowly been admitting to myself, that despite my best intentions, I'm probably now bringing meat into my house which is neither kosher nor humanely raised.

Then, this week, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Jonathan Safran Foer (who, not coincidentally, narrated that PETA video). Foer argues convincingly in favor of vegetarianism.  Part of why he is so persuasive is that he isn't a zealot.  He admits that he likes eating meat, and that he has often backtracked on his commitment to vegetarianism.  Nonetheless, he holds it up as a value, both from a universal, as well as a Jewish, point of view.

To summarize a few key points, eating meat is horrific, from an environmental point of view:

According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.

It is also horrific, given how these animals are treated, during life and at the time of slaughter:

Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves. We know these things matter.

In the book of Genesis (which we begin reading again this week), Adam and Eve are told that they are allowed to eat of all of the plants, but never are they told that they are allowed to eat meat. That doesn’t happen until after The Flood, and many modern commentators interpret that as a concession by God – God realized that, the first time around, the world was too strict, and that’s why people failed to obey (as any parent can tell you, if you make the rules so strict that a child can’t follow them, then they have no incentive to even try). So, in other words, we are allowed to eat meat, but the Torah is also telling us that not eating meat, being a vegetarian, is much better. It’s the ideal. It’s how things were in Paradise.

I’m not ready to declare myself vegetarian. It is, to put it bluntly, too hard. Being a healthy vegetarian takes a lot of work and, to be honest, I also love meat. I’m not sure I’m strong enough to turn away from it, completely. At least, not yet.

But, when Hillary and I were going through our transition from “kosher” to “organic,” we also decided to try to eat less meat. If eating meat is wrong, then eating less meat is better than eating more meat – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And so, although it lacks the grandeur of “I hereby declare that I will no longer eat meat,” I think I’ve decided to swing the pendulum a bit further, and to try, as hard as I can, to avoid meat. To kill as few animals as I can get myself to. It’s a good place to start, if you, yourself, aren’t sure what you want to do.

It’s worth clicking through to Foer’s piece (and, if you have the stomach) to that PETA video. It’s not that eating meat isn’t wonderfully pleasurable. It’s just that, if we’re being honest, it might really be the wrong thing to do.

Friday, October 9, 2009

One more curse

Last month, I blogged about Yiddish curses.  I just came across a new favorite: “May you become so rich that your widow's second husband never has to work to earn a living.”

Man, 2000 years of wandering can really make people irritable, huh?


I'm doing my final preparation for a class I’m teaching next week on Jewish humor*. While looking for a quote which I partially remembered from a book which I haven't looked at in years, I came across a little bonus**.

* favorite joke so far: a Jewish man is talking to a Jewish friend.  He start tell a joke: “one day Cohen and Levine were going…” His friend stops him. “Why are your jokes always about Jews?  Tell a joke about some other people for change.” “OK - one day, Soo Lung Mu and Mao Tsu Nu were going to Soo Lung Mu’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah…”

** man, I hate to sound like a Luddite, but as e-books and such get more popular, how many fewer happy accidents like this will we all have?

Throughout Rabbinic literature, we have a number of deathbed quotes.  The great Rabbis of old had a chance to offer one last piece of wisdom to their students.  One last chance to summarize their lives of teaching, in a single principle.

When Rabbi Eliezer was about to die, all his students came and sat before him.  They said to him, “Rabbi – teach us only one thing.”

He replied, “My children, what can I teach you?  Every one of you go and be very careful of the dignity of others.”

Derech Eretz Rabbah, 3)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


One of our members was on the West Coast for Yom Kippur, and she found herself at a congregation made up of mostly LGBT Jews. The sermon was given by a young woman who is, in her own language, queerspawn* – the child of a same-sex marriage. It’s worth clicking through to read – there are some bits I might quibble with, but overall, it’s a powerful, open and honest look at life as a queerspawn Jew, and the role that this synagogue plays, and should play, in that life.

* the writer uses “queer” as a neutral or positive word. I’ve spoken with some from the LGBT community who find that term offensive, and some who find it completely appropriate. I’m using it here because she uses is, and I sincerely hope that anyone who feels differently about that word won’t be offended by that.

I have some reservations about LGBT congregations, because I have reservations about any demographically defined congregation. I think that Jewish organizations should be equally for all Jews, and I wonder if separating out one sub-group is the best way to bring about greater understanding and acceptance (or, to put that a bit differently, I may disagree with the means, but I think we’d agree on the ends). But, this sermon is an important reminder that, even if I’m right that, in a perfect world, Queer Synagogues wouldn’t be necessary, we don’t live in a perfect world. And, since that’s true, thank God there are places like this, that make a home for some people who might not otherwise feel at home elsewhere.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The joy of Sukkot

Getting ready for Sukkot, and I came across a lovely little teaching from Rabbi S.R. Hirsch:

Rosh Hashana, which  is a day of pleading and broken hearts, was established as a single day*. The same goes for Yom Kippur, which is a day of fasting, repentance, and forgiveness.  They only have one day, but the Torah says that Sukkot, which is called “the time of our joy” is to be celebrated for seven days. This is because it was our Creator’s will that Israel (i.e. Jews) should continue in joy (i.e. spend more time in joy than in sorrow).  Just as it is written, “Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha -- serve Adonai in joy.”

* originally, Rosh Hashana was one day, not two, and Sukkot was seven days, not eight.  That changed about 2000 years ago.

Rabbis and lay people alike often complain about the “two day a year Jews.” You know, those members who only show up for the High Holy Days.  You know what the real problem is with that kind of Jewish life?  It misses the best stuff. 

Look, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are important, powerful holy days.  But they aren't much fun.  I've never heard anyone say, “Oh, goody!  Yom Kippur is on its way!  I can't wait to fast!” Even though people may find it very meaningful, I've never heard anyone describe sitting in synagogue all day as “fun.”

But, Sukkot is fun! We get to make a hut! We get to decorate it!  We get to eat outside!  We get to play outside! Especially given how hot the summer has been here in Tampa, and how lovely the past few days have been, I'm positively giddy with the prospect of spending some time outside, and even getting to call it “work.”

There's nothing wrong with seriousness.  And sometimes important things have to be done which aren't much fun.  But, it doesn't always have to be that way.  It doesn't usually have to be that way.  At its best, our religion (all religions?) should engender joy.  We should love doing what we do.  We should look forward to it, and look back on it with happy memories.

I don't think that it's a coincidence that several of my Rabbinic friends have recently referred to Sukkot as, “my favorite holiday.” After the High Holidays, it's a pure joy to step outside, raise the roof (sorry, couldn't resist), and celebrate with family, friends and community.  An absolute joy, just as it was meant to be.

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Please Read: Two Jonahs

Jonah Dreskin was the son of Rabbi Billy and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. He died earlier this year in a terrible accident. His father has been blogging since then, although I just learned of the blog now. He posted a powerful, beautiful piece about the connections between his son and the prophet after whom he was named.

I also read the preceding post, equally poignant, about how Rabbi Dreskin sees the world, or is trying to, in the wake of this loss.

I'm not going to pull any quotes - there's too much, and I don't feel right doing any editing. I haven't been able to read more postings, yet - they're just too difficult, and too powerful. But, utterly beautiful. Please, find some quiet time, and give these a read. And, as always, hug your family. A lot.

G'mar Chatimah Tova - May you be sealed in the Book of Life.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sermon – Elu v’Elu

Now that I have a blog, I finally have a way to try to get some real feedback on my sermons! I’ll make one posting for each of three sermons I gave during the High Holy Days, including a link to the sermon itself. Please – comment and discuss away!

By the way, this one is, to me, incomplete. I say in the sermon, and I’ve said elsewhere, that I think that this is one of those Big Ideas in Judaism. One day, God willing, I’ll be able to make a book out of this. Think of this sermon as a kind of abstract, if you will…

Yom Kippur Elu v’Elu – The Words of the Living God

Sermon – A Sanctuary From the Storm

Now that I have a blog, I finally have a way to try to get some real feedback on my sermons! I’ll make one posting for each of three sermons I gave during the High Holy Days, including a link to the sermon itself. Please – comment and discuss away!

Next up, Kol Nidrei – A Sanctuary From the Storm

Sermon – The Shofar and Reform Judaism

Now that I have a blog, I finally have a way to try to get some real feedback on my sermons! I’ll make one posting for each of three sermons I gave during the High Holy Days, including a link to the sermon itself. Please – comment and discuss away!

First up, Rosh Hashana morning – The Shofar and Reform Judaism.

What's wrong with being ridiculous?

I recently posted a short item about some twisted Rabbinic logic. Ben Bucholtz (a congregant) posted a comment which I think deserves an response (well, a couple of responses, actually – one on why not to waste a prayer, and one on why not to worry about being ridiculous), and since it’s longish, and potentially interesting to others, I thought I’d put it up as a new entry. First, his comment:

In my humble opinion, the entire discussion is ridiculous. I followed the link and read the referenced article and I'm even more amazed that this question seems to have been debated for centuries. To me, this is a tremendous waste of intellectual energy. Should we say this prayer or not? Oh no, we may waste a prayer. Come on. How can the answer to this make us better Jews or better human beings? Why not spend this time and energy on thinking about how we can improve ourselves, how we can help our community, or how we can make some small contribution to making the world a better place? How does puzzling over this question get us any closer to the "Truth" as you eloquently described in your Rosh Hashanah sermon? On the other hand, after the Yom Kippur morning sermon, I am trying to see merit in the other side of this discussion.

Wasting a prayer

So, first let me address the issue of “wasting a prayer.” I was aware, in the original posting, that I was glossing over a larger idea, and I’m glad that Ben picked up on it (and, so, gave me an excuse to respond). Traditionally, it is very important to not waste a blessing – for example, we’d never say haMotzi (the blessing over bread) and then not eat bread. Similarly, we never say a blessing which has already been said – it’s also improper to repeat haMotzi in the middle of a meal. Why?

As always, there are lots of reasons, but I think that most of them come down to paying attention to our words, and treating some words as special, or even sacred. Blessings inherently invoke God, and we don’t want to abuse God - not because God cares, but because how we act towards God affects how we view God. So, saying a blessing that isn’t needed is, in its own way, acting dismissively towards God. Rabbis, Philosophers and Cognitive Scientists all agree* – how we use our words very much affects how we see our world. Being very careful with our use of blessings, and with our use of God, can have a profound affect on our own outlook.

* now there’s a phrase you don’t see every day

By the way, when I was studying this in Rabbinical School, I made a practice of not saying “God Bless You” when someone sneezes. I usually use “Gezundheit” or “LaBriyut,” as a way to avoid using “bless” in a silly situation. Not that I think it’s sinful to say “God Bless You,” it’s just become one of my little, ongoing reminders to think carefully about how we use words like “God” and “bless.” I continue this practice to this day, and I have to say, it’s one of those little practices which means a lot to me. It’s amazing to me how often I actually think about this issue, albeit usually quickly and in a cursory way, when someone sneezes!

So, I’d say that worrying about “wasting a blessing” is potentially very useful, theologically speaking.

Go ahead…be ridiculous

But, that brings me to what may be a very different point. The “useless” argument. We shouldn’t bother with this or that topic, because they are “useless.” They are, in Ben’s words, a waste of intellectual energy. To that, I humbly reply, so what?

One of my favorite ways to take a mental break at work is to read a few baseball blogs. I especially love the ones from an analytical, statistics-based perspective. Why? Well, partially, it’s just because I do. Call it a quirk. Why do some people like Jazz and some don’t? Romance novels? Gardening? It’s just a matter of taste. Reading about baseball is a hobby. I enjoy it. Following the twisted logic of halachic reasoning is a hobby. I enjoy it. It often isn’t useful to my life (although, I frequently get good teaching/preaching material from it), but the thing itself is, to me, fun.

And, this may somewhat contradict what I just said, but it occurs to me that both of these pastimes (baseball analysis and halacha) are, to some degree, analysis for its own sake. Thinking for its own sake. Kind of like mental calisthenics. I do these things for some of the same reasons people do Sudoku, I guess – just a way to stretch the brain a bit, with nothing serious at stake to raise the tension. So, even if the content isn’t meaningful, that doesn’t mean that the activity is useless, or ridiculous.

I’ve noticed that, particularly in religion, people often use the “don’t waste your time on that; there are more valuable things to be doing” argument. I think it’s a false dichotomy. Of course, making the world a better place is more valuable than thinking about the importance of wasting a blessing. But, who says we have to choose? I can use one to relax, so I’m ready to do the other. I read silly mystery novels when my brain is tired, so I can read Heschel when it’s not. And so on.

By the way, if you’re interested, Rob Neyer is kind of the Dean of analytical bloggers, and Joe Posnanski is just brilliant. Good places to start.

Friday, September 25, 2009


One of my favorite topics is uncertainty, and the ambiguous nature of truth. I’ve spoken about it a number of times, written about a few times in this blog (although not recently, I think) and so on. I am, in fact, trying to finish up a Yom Kippur sermon on this very topic (it’s my first attempt to really speak systematically about this idea, which I believe to be utterly fundamental. It’s making me think that maybe, someday, I’ll actually be able to follow through on my threat to write a book about it). When trying to find a few last pieces, I came across the following:

I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc.  are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science…  This loosening of thinking seems to me to be the greatest blessing which modern science has given to us.  For the belief in a single truth and in being the possessor thereof is the root cause of all evil in the world.

Max Born, Nobel Prize laureate in Physics, 1954


It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.

Anatole France, Noble Prize laureate in literature, 1921


Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.

Andre Gide, Noble Prize laureate in literature, 1947

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Video Killed the Rabbi Star

I hate seeing myself on video. I know that’s not exactly unique, but it’s true. But, when the JCC/Federation asked me to participate in their new “From the Bima” video series, I had to say “yes.” I had to, in part, because I love and support the JCC/Federation. But, I also think that if the Jewish Communal world doesn’t figure out how to leverage technology, and soon, we’re going to be digging ourselves a very, very deep hole!

So, my entry is now up on their website. I urge you to view it for two reasons:

  1. the teaching, while a bit too complex for me to do justice to in the minute I was allotted (and, yes, I am aware that I spoke for more than a minute. But no one tells a Rabbi to speak for a minute and then really expects him to do so, right?), is a really beautiful teaching that I just recently came across. It adds a spiritual dimension to the Kol Nidrei prayer that I hadn’t considered before, which promises to make hearing that prayer much more meaningful to me, this year.
  2. Someone at the J is tracking how many hits the various Rabbis get, and wouldn’t it be cool if I get more than anyone else? I mean, I know that these things aren’t important, but throw me a bone. I’m never going to actually be famous. But, I can be the most famous Tampa-based-Internet Rabbi. So, that would be something.

So, click on the video, and view it. Enjoy the teaching; I certainly loved learning it. And, then, have your friends click on it, too. You learn. I receive glory. Everyone wins.

Gamar Chatima Tova – may you be sealed in the Book of Life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rabbinic logic

I just came across an example of rabbinic logic.  I can't decide if it's brilliant, or ridiculous.  As a side note, it's interesting how often that's the case.

So, the question is whether to recite shechechiyanu (that’s the prayer we say when we experience something new, or when we reach a regular milestone, such as a holiday) on the second day of Rosh Hashana.

Because I'm still working on my High Holy Day sermons, I'm not going to take the time to explain all the details, but you can find them here. The summary of the conundrum is that the second day of the holiday is, according to some authorities, actually an extension of the first day.  In other words, there aren’t two days of Rosh Hashana, but rather one, extra-long day. So, whether or not to recite the prayer would depend on whether or not the second day is in fact a new day, which isn't clear. And, it's important to know, that, traditionally, it's very important not to "waste" a blessing. We're not supposed to say a blessing, unless we absolutely need to.  So, how do we know what to do in this case?

The solution?  Easy!  Put something special, like a piece of fruit you haven't eaten this year, on the table. Then, say the blessing.  If it turns out that we're supposed to say the blessing for the holiday, then we did so.  If, however, it turns out that we weren't supposed to say it for the holiday, then we can say we said it for the fruit.  Either way, we're kosher.

So, faithful readers: what say you?  A brilliant way around a religious conundrum?  Or, an example of what's wrong with religious ritual?  Or, both?

And now, back to those sermons…

Friday, September 4, 2009

Yiddish Curses

I love Yiddish Curses.

Yiddish speakers have, over the years, developed an amazing ability to come up with creative, funny and vicious ways to condemn their enemies. “May you be rich – may you have a thousand houses with a thousand rooms each. May each one have the nicest featherbed in the land. And may you roll from bed to bed, unable to catch a moment of decent sleep.” “God should bless him with three people: one should grab him, the second should stab him and the third should hide him.”

OK, I’ll admit that my love of these things might not be the best reflection on me. But still - “His luck should be as bright as a new moon.” How can you not appreciate the creativity?

Anyway, I just came across two I had never seen before, and they made me laugh:

“May all your teeth fall out, except one, and may that one have a toothache.”

“May a child be named after you – soon.” *

*if you don’t know, Ashkenazi (Western European) Jews don’t name children after living people.

If you like these (I won’t judge you, if you won’t judge me), then try Googling “Yiddish Curses.” There are some great collections out there!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Nice shoes. Want a blessing?

Recently, I subscribed to a daily e-mail about halacha (Jewish law). Every day, they send me a short e-mail describing one particular, random aspect of the law.  What are the restrictions on eating meat and fish off of the same plate?  Are we supposed to sway back and forth while we pray?  Most of these topics aren't relevant to my life, in a practical way.  I am not a halachic Jew - I don't profess to be bound by the letter of the law.  But, I've always found these tiny, even picayune, matters interesting. Kind of a hobby, I guess.

Today's e-mail was on the topic of saying Shehechiyanu (the blessing giving thanks for a happy occasion, or for something new) when we buy a new piece of clothing. It turns out, that we are supposed to do so. Most people actually say the blessing the first time they wear the clothing, but the idea is the same.  When paying for the item, or when putting it on the first time, we say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given us life, and Who has sustained us, and Who has brought us to this day.”

Underlying this law is a very interesting idea: clothing, a material thing, deserves a blessing.  Purchasing something deserves a blessing.  People tend to think that religion is supposed to reject anything approaching materialism.  Its goal should be to elevate us beyond such petty concerns.  But Judaism takes a different approach.  We certainly don't revel in materialism, and we don't claim that material goods are nearly as important as other, more obviously spiritual, matters.  But, we do acknowledge that happiness, even if it’s only in small amounts, can be found in the material world.  “Things” aren't inherently bad, or anti-spiritual.  If a new piece of clothing provides us with a small moment of joy, then we are supposed to sanctify that joy, and that moment, rather than reject or deny them.  In fact, the law actually states that we must say this blessing only over clothing which does bring us some joy. It's not to be said over something boring, such as new socks*.

* when listing clothing which is “boring” and therefore unworthy of a blessing, one authority includes “shoes.” I know a few people who would take issue, quite sternly, with that interpretation.

Judaism does indeed try to get us to focus on the more important parts of our world, and to elevate our lives.  But, sometimes, there's nothing wrong with finding a little bit of joy, and a little bit of holiness, in the ordinary, even prosaic, world around us.

Jewish Eyes

As some of you know, here in Tampa, we don't have access to a mikvah, so we use natural bodies of water. That brings up a host of logistical issues, including how to ensure privacy. A conversion candidate of mine, and her husband, helped me out by making a floating enclosure - picture a short shower stall on floats. You bring it out in the water, go inside, close the curtain and – voila! – privacy.

So, we bring this contraption down to the Gulf of Mexico for her conversion last week, and it happens to be a nasty, rainy day (actually, it was pretty nice here at CBA when we left, but it started pouring as we got closer to the beach. Such is life in Tampa, I guess). We decide that, since we're all going into the water anyway, we'll go ahead and ignore the rain. By the time we get out into the water, the rain is lightening up, but still coming. We go through the ritual (and, by the way, as awkward as all of this may be, going through the final blessings of conversion, surrounded by warm, wavy water, with schools of tiny fish darting all around you, is, in the best sense of the word, an awesome experience). While the candidate is in the booth, reciting the blessings, the rain stops completely, and, I kid you not, the sun breaks through – there is now a clear path, between the clouds, going directly over our heads and on to the horizon. The candidate comes out of the booth, looks at the sky, and the sun, and the lit up clouds and exclaims, “Wow. That's so beautiful.”

To which her husband says, “See? That's how things always look to us Jews.”


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Killing the Death Penalty

Usually, like most people, I find that things are very clear in theory, but much messier in practice. Clean, orderly theories often become much more, let’s say nuanced, when they’re forced to deal with a complicated reality. But, strangely, I’ve realized that there’s one issue which, for me, is exactly the opposite of this: the death penalty.

In theory, I am against the death penalty, but I am conflicted about that position. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that capital punishment is right – I don’t think that we can build a moral society by killing people (or, to be more precise, that killing people is an effective part of building a larger, moral society). It’s a bit like spanking your kids for fighting – can you really teach them to be non-violent by being violent towards them (most child experts say, “no – you can’t,” for what it’s worth)? I tend to follow the Rabbis of old, who understood the death penalty as an extreme ideal, but one which was never meant to be put to use. “Your crime is so heinous as to deserve death, but it’s not up to us to impose such a terrible punishment,” seems to be the gist of the message our sages try to convey.

But, I really do understand those who support the death penalty. I hear about awful, heinous crimes, and I want someone to die for them. I read about molesters, and mass murderers, and serial rapists, and I have a lot of trouble summoning moral outrage at the idea of their being put to death. So, even though, if were up to me, we wouldn’t impose the death penalty on these awful, evil people, I can admit that I’m not 100% sure that’s the only right approach.

But, in the face of actual reality, my opposition to the death penalty becomes much more strident, and absolute. Today, the New York Times ran an Op Ed by Bob Hebert, talking about what may be the clearest case yet of an innocent being put to death. I’ll warn you, it’s a chilling read. In 2004, a Texas man was executed for the killing, by arson, of his three children. And, it seems that not only is there not a single shred of evidence that he did it, or that it was arson at all, but there never was. The entire case was built on sand.

This man watched as his home burned with his three children inside of it. He was injured trying to get them out, and then had to be restrained, at one point using handcuffs, to keep him from going back in to try to get them again. He lived through the worst horror I can possibly imagine, and then was accused of perpetrating that horror. And then, he was killed for it. All along, knowing that he was innocent.

This was not a 30-year old case, in which we have new evidence that, maybe, something was handled badly. This execution happened in this decade, with all the necessary technology and wisdom available to save his life, and yet the system failed him. Those who support the death penalty must, I believe, face a clear fact: keeping the death penalty legal all but guarantees that, at least some of the time, innocents will be executed. To believe that we can have capital punishment, and not have it sometimes misapplied, seems almost farcical to me. Humans make mistakes. Systems created by humans have flaws. Nothing is perfect. Innocents have been put to death. Innocents will be put to death. That’s the reality of the death penalty.

If there is anyone reading this who does support the death penalty, I would love to hear your counter-argument. In all sincerity, not to attack you – can you please explain how, in the light of this revelation, you can continue to support capital punishment? Are you willing to let some number of innocents die, in the name of greater justice? Or, do you believe that it’s possible to create a perfect system, even if we haven’t done so already? I don’t see any other choices.

Reasonable people can debate the philosophy behind this, and I’m willing to be swayed. Maybe, in a perfect world, the death penalty has a time and a place. But, in our world, the world we actually live in, it’s time to admit that the power over life and death is too great to be wielded imperfectly. Which means it’s too great to be wielded at all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gilad Shalit

The past few days, I've been thinking, quit a bit, and preciousness, and about loss.

It's one of those weeks where I'm spending a lot of time with people who are facing, or remembering, issues which I can't imagine having to deal with. A terrible disease, one which might be fatal. A spouse, dealing with the same. A friend who lost a child. A friend with a child in a coma. It's one of the privileges of being a Rabbi that people trust you with these stories. That people, in some small way, bring you into their lives, through these stories.

Naturally, it can make a person pensive - not only about how lucky I am, or how fragile life is, but also about how to understand all of this tragedy (and the joys of life, as well). How to process it, and make some sense of the larger picture.

As I'm trying to figure that out, and probably how to turn that into a sermon for Friday night, I also came across this article, about Gilad Shalit. If you don't know, Shalit is an Israeli soldier, taken prisoner four years ago (my God, has it really been that long?). His parents have spent four years not knowing if he is alive or dead. Not knowing if they'll ever see him again, or if they'll ever be able to (God forbid) give him a proper funeral. David Seidmann, the author, writes:

I told Mr. Shalit that I feel at a loss; I want to do something but have no idea where to begin. We agreed to speak again after Shabbos and that perhaps over Shabbos an idea would enter my head.

And then it struck me. Moments after I hung up the phone with Noam Shalit, I saw my wife light the Shabbos candles and say the prayer on behalf of our children. It is a prayer that Jewish woman have been saying for generations. It asks G-d to bestow all that is good, fine, proper and healthy for our children, now and for the future.

Immediately after Shabbos concluded, I called Noam Shalit again. I proposed the idea that women all over the world, when they light Shabbos candles and say the prayer on behalf of their children, pause and think for one moment about Gilad, and then pause for another moment and think about his parents.


Noam Shalit told me that it was a wonderful idea, one that he would think appropriate, one that would provide comfort to the family. I began to share this idea with any and every rabbi I could find.

This Shabbat, as you're lighting candles, take a moment, and think of Gilad Shalit. And of his parents. Say a prayer for them. And say a prayer for all of the blessings you have in life, and all of the troubles you have, which might not be so bad.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Philosophy of Torah

Cleaning up my office, I came across this lovely little teaching:

Rabbi Yehuda Amital was once asked to sum up his philosophy of Torah.  In response, he told this story:

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (also know as The Alter Rebbe, was once studying Torah in his room when he heard his infant grandson crying in his cradle.  The Rebbe closed his book, but went into the baby's room and soothed him back to sleep.  He then went into the adjoining room where he found his son, the baby's father, steeped in Torah study. The rebbe turned to his son in astonishment and asked, "why didn't you get up to pacify your crying son?"

The bewildered son looked up and answered, "I was so immersed in my study that I didn't even hear him cry."

The rebbe then declared, "if someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the crying of a baby, there is something very wrong with his learning."

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 7, 2009


If you’d like to get a summary/interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, but in cartoon form, then check out G-dCast.

It’s Torah, only cuter.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Is God a useful idea?

A colleague of mine recommended a book, How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Waldman. Among other findings, the authors talk about results which show that people who believe in a God tend to be more compassionate*. There are other benefits, too – lower incidence of dementia, for example.

* right now, some of you are preparing responses of this sort: “I know of person X who claims to believe in God, and they do A, B and C, all of which are horrific things.” Don’t bother – the claim isn’t that people who believe are automatically nicer, or that people who don’t believe aren’t. The claim is that belief in a God, like other activities, such as meditation, can strengthen the parts of the brain that allow us to feel compassion. But, it’s not guaranteed, and it’s not the only way.

So, here’s an interesting philosophical question. Imagine that you don’t believe in God (which is surely true for some people reading this). But, imagine that you become convinced that acting as if you believe in God can/will have significant, positive benefits for you. Or, imagine that convincing yourself that you believe (which is different from just acting that way) will give you those benefits. Would you do it?

For me, it’s a real quandary. I am, by nature, somewhat philosophical. I place a high value on Truth. I don’t want to believe that which isn’t true, and I get very frustrated by those who equate all belief with belief in irrational things. But, what if I were to decide that my insistence on rigorous truth is actually a detriment to my life? What if I’d be happier/nicer/healthier, if I could just get over myself, and pretend to believe that which I don’t believe? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face, by sticking with Truth?

In the end, I don’t think so – in my case, it’s just too far to go. So much of my thinking, and my religious identity, is based around this concept of truth, that to go away from it would be a lie, and probably an unsustainable one. But, it still leaves the question an open one, and an interesting one, so I’ll put it to you, dear reader: if you don’t (or hypothetically didn’t) believe in God, but believe that it’s better to believe, would you / could you fake it?

By the way, here, according to the book (according to my colleague), is the list (I believe in order of effectiveness) of ways to exercise your brain:

  1. Smile
  2. Stay intellectually active
  3. Consciously relax
  4. Yawn (though hopefully not during this sermon!)
  5. Meditate
  6. Aerobic Exercise
  7. Dialogue with others
  8. Have faith.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Anyone follow God on Twitter? What's He up to?

Apparently, you can now use Twitter to put a prayer in the Western Wall. A colleague of mine wrote about what, exactly, is wrong with this - calling it "Fast Food Judaism." Quick and easy religion which might feel satisfying at the time, but ultimately is unhealthy for you. Pretty good analogy, if you ask me (and I do love a religious analogy).

I'd go a step further than he does, though. He does allow for the value, in a limited way, of putting prayers in the wall (for those who don't know, the Western Wall in Jerusalem is sacred, and many people write prayer on slips of paper, and put them in the cracks of the wall). Let me preface this by saying that, like him, I love the Wall - I've always found it incredibly powerful to be there, and I am always drawn to return to it, whenever I'm lucky enough to be in Jerusalem.

Put the whole idea of putting a note in the wall just runs counter to what I believe. No matter how people try to justify it (and some just accept this as literal fact), the implication is that God hears our prayers (reads our prayers?) better when they are put there. If I ask God for health, or happiness, or a new car, but I do it here in Tampa - well, that gives me a 20% chance of getting what I want. But, if I stick that prayer in the Kotel (the Hebrew word for "wall"), then it jumps up to 80%. Maybe 90%, if God's running a special that week.

There is a very fine line between religion and superstition. One of the signs that you're crossing that line is if you ever say "this prayer/ritual/rite will work better if it's done in this way/at this time/in this place." To use one of my own favorite (and well used) metaphors, God is not a Cosmic Vending Machine, requiring only that we learn which buttons to push, and in what order, to get what we want.

Of course, this can get overstated - holidays are special times, and the Wall is a special place. Finding sanctity in some times and places isn't inherently superstitious. But, believing that God will react differently, in a literal sense, in those times and places is. Are there ways to do the "note in the Kotel" thing that don't cross that line? I'm sure that there are. But, when people think that Tweeting "please give me a pony" is, in any way, better than an authentic, personal prayer, then I think we've crossed a line.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I'll admit up front that this post is not technically Jewish, but it's something that's been on my mind for a while. And, since Judaism places such an intensely high value on Pikuach Nefesh, the requirement to save a life, whenever possible, I can feel justified about posting it. At the risk of being melodramatic, this really could save your life.

A couple of days ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released research which reconfirms what several other studies have shown in the past few years: talking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous. In fact, it seems to be the statistical equivalent of having a .08 Blood Alcohol Level - the legal limit here in Florida. You are 4 times more likely to be in an accident if you're talking on the phone while driving than if you're not.

Now, here's the part that really gets people: it makes essentially no difference if you use a hand-held phone or a hands-free phone. Talking on a earpiece or via a Bluetooth speaker does not, in any way, make you safer. It's not about the use of your hands; it's about the distraction*.

* there is a side issue here which I find fascinating. These results are not new, but when I've brought them up before, people always reject them. Tell a normal, smart person that talking hands-free is just as dangerous as hand-held, and they'll often tell you that you're wrong. Tell them that there is science to back that up, and they'll deny it, or claim it doesn't apply to them, or say that the science is wrong, without ever looking at it. Think about that the next time someone claims that people are essentially logical.

I rarely talk on the phone while driving, but I do it sometimes. Several times, I've claimed that I won't do it any more, but I always make exceptions - just a quick call home, on a road I know well. No big deal, right? Well, maybe I'll be better if I do this publicly: I hereby promise and declare (our religion forbids me to swear, so I won't do it) that I will no longer use a cell phone while driving. I won't do it a little. I won't do it for a moment. Nothing I have to say is worth quadrupling my chances of being in an accident. It can wait.

But, here's where things get really sticky. If I was sitting in a car, and the driver pulled out a beer, would anyone begrudge me the right to say, "Please stop that. It's incredibly unsafe, and it makes me wildly uncomfortable"? Would anyone call me insane if I insisted on getting out of the car, right then and there, no matter where we were? How about this - would you think I was nuts if I chastised you for drinking and driving, even if I wasn't in the car with you? Probably not. But, what about with a phone? Don't I now, given what we know, have the right to ask others to not use the phone while I'm in the car? And, if a friend or loved-one calls me from the car, isn't it only friendly and loving for me to say, "This really isn't safe. Please give me a call when you're not driving, ok?" I've thought about doing that many times, but I've never been brave enough. I feel like a nudnick - like an annoying zealot.

Look, I'm sorry to be a pest, but we have to face reality. If you talk on the phone while driving, you are putting yourself, and others, in danger. No matter why you think it's not true, it is. Put down the phone, and get home safely.

Judaism, Feminism and duality

One of my conversion students recently pointed me to an essay about a Jewish woman, studying to be a Rabbi, and how she deals with some of the issues which come up for her.

What I love about the essay is her willingness to discuss, and even embrace, tension and duality. She comes at it (largely) from a feminist point of view, but I'd argue that these same issues are present for any of us who take liberal religion seriously - those of us who are dedicated to being sincerely religious, but stridently non-fanatical. There's always a certain intellectual tension in that kind of life - how can I be faithful both to an ancient religion and to modern, liberal values, when those two worlds often conflict? How can I claim to be serving The One higher than myself if I'm the one picking and choosing what to do? But, how can I claim to be sincere and honest if I pretend that my religion is infallible and absolute when I know it's not?

Rather than try to find easy answers to these questions, the writer admits that they're important (I'd say fundamental) and troubling, and that they must be engaged. As always, people taking questions seriously are much more important to me than people who claim to have pat answers. Truth is messy - anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something*.

* That's a misquote - can anyone name the movie?

Friday, July 17, 2009

The honor of enduring

I love baseball, and I love baseball writing - I probably read more baseball blogs than any other type. My favorite blogger has become a writer by the name of Joe Posnanski - he writes really long, really well crafted, really well thought out posts. Today, he posted a piece about a certain kind of player, and person, who just refuses to give up, even when it's clear that it's time. Towards the end, his writing gets more personal:

I always say that the single most enduring memory of my childhood is that of my father going to the factory every single day, waking up so early the television stations were still static … then dressing in the dark, packing a salami sandwich in a brown paper bag, wandering out in the arctic chill of 5:30 a.m., driving through the darkness, over the potholes, to the factory, where the air was stale and the lights flickered and the work could break you. I always say that the single most enduring memory of my childhood was of my father coming home in that blue, rusted-out Chevy Nova, getting out of the car, his pants and hands black from oil and muck and whatever else, and how he would have this smile on his face, and I would beg him, and he would grab a Nerf football or grab his glove and wander out to the backyard with me and play catch.

That long memory is special for me because he is my father, of course. But that memory is also special for me because (I realize) it is the model against which I judge everyone and everything, the model against which I judge myself. Do you bring it every day? Do you endure through the monotony? Do you hold on to what’s important to you even when it isn’t easy? Are you a hero to someone — not because of talent or artistry or what is largely viewed as success, but instead because of who you are at your core?

I know that, if I take just a moment, I can find the perfect Jewish quote which says essentially the same thing, but with different words. But, truth is, that seems redundant. Nothing wrong with finding an occasional nice Shabbat thought in the world of baseball, rather than in Judaism. They are, after all, my two religions.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Biennial, Toronto

Just a heads-up to any Beth Am'ers (and anyone else who's interested). From November 4-8, the URJ is holding their Biennial Conference in Toronto (click here for more info). If you've never been to Biennial, it's basically hundreds of members of the Reform Movement getting together for a few days of learning, exploring, praying, singing and much more. Think of it as a giant retreat for all ages. It's hard to describe - it really has to be experienced.

I thought I'd bring it up now, just to plant the seed. If you're interested, feel free to talk to me (or check out that website) for more information - and be sure to mark it on your calendars, now!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Traditional Feminism?

Over the summer, I'm meeting bi-weekly with all of my conversion candidates for class/discussions. This week's topic is women in Judaism and Jewish Feminism (which sound alike, but are very different, albeit overlapping, topics). I've been sending them a few articles and such to read, to get the thinking/conversation going, and lo and behold* this came across my e-desk today:

There is plenty to criticize/disagree with here, but also some potentially interesting ideas. My students will get a chance to air their questions/thoughts/arguments on Thursday. Anyone in cyber-land care to chime in in the "comments" section?

* Zaddok Hakohen of Lublin said, "The first premise of faith is to believe that there is no such thing as happenstance...Every detail, small or great, they are all from the Holy One."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sanctuary in the round

If you've been to services in the past couple of weeks, you've surely noticed a big change in the sanctuary - a new seating arrangement. We're experimenting with "services in the round" or, more accurately, "in the octagon." In brief (more to come, later) we're trying to play with our physical arrangement to see what effect it can have on our prayers. Can our seating plan help us feel more connected, more spiritual? Can it make praying easier, or more meaningful?

This is definitely a big change, and it will take some getting used to. Having led one service already in this configuration, I can tell you that there were some thing I loved (a much stronger sense of "being together") and some things which bothered me (it's hard to give a d'var torah in the round. I nearly made myself dizzy trying to give equal "face time" to everyone). And, that's to say nothing of the logistics (e.g. sound) which will be iffy, unless and until we decide to make this more permanent.

Of course, what we really need is to hear from our pray-ers - you! What do you think? Have you had a chance to participate in "services in the round," yet? If so, what was good, and what was bad? Please make comments below, and let's get the conversation rolling!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What is a soul

Came across this today. In Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's The Book of Words, he creatively redefines common Hebrew religious words, in an attempt to better explain them. For example, he renders mitzvah, usually translated as "commandment," instead as "response." It's brilliant (check it out sometime). But, I don't think I've ever seen his definition of neshama before. Rather than the usual "soul," he translates it as "self." Make sure that whenever you read "self," you're also reading "soul":

You are (like everyone else who is not crazy) a barely coherent hodgepodge of contradictory thoughts, feelings and deeds. What keeps you "together" is an imaginary center called a "self." The parts may not organize themselves gracefully, but their totality is literally "you." Without a "self" you would literally disintegrate.

We speak about our self as if it were real even though it possesses neither substance nor location. It is precisely the same way with God. God is the self of the universe. To say, "There is a God," is to say that creation has some inner coherence and integrity that can make sense. In the same way, our alienation is self-estrangement and estrangement from God."

The argument over "is there a soul" in the public sphere usually comes down to religious people, who believe that there is a magic force in us - the proverbial "ghost in the machine" - against the scientists who don't believe in anything which can't be measured. Exactly like the debate about whether or not their is a God. There is, however, a middle way. A soul doesn't have to be a mystical energy field which somehow escapes detection. And we don't have to be nothing but fleshy robots, doing nothing but processing inputs into outputs. We can believe in a soul, and a God, without thinking that they are things.

Let me ask you this? Does a music CD contain data, or does it contain music? The answer, of course, is that it contains both, depending on how you look at it. The data comes together to form the music. The parts of me come together to form my soul. The Universe comes together to form God.


One of my favorite parts of my job is participating in conversions. I'm not talking about the long, ongoing process of helping someone find their way into Judaism (well, that is a favorite part, but not the one I'm talking about today). No, I'm talking about the actual final steps of conversion - sitting on a Beit Din (a Rabbinical court), deciding to (and, on very rare occasions, not to) accept a convert and then, especially, going to the mikvah (the ritual bath) to perform the actual act of conversion. A non-Jewish person goes into the water, and a Jewish person comes out. Like most (all?) religious rituals, it is simultaneously meaningless (the water doesn't actually do anything. It isn't magic) and absolutely exploding with meaning - usually, the convert has put so much thought, so much love, so much time into the process of conversion, that this final act becomes incredibly poignant and powerful. It's one of those moments which never fails to move me.

Today, I had the chance to sit on the Beit Din and witness the mikvah of another convert (one who had worked with a colleague of mine, not one of "my" converts). One of the (usually) final steps in conversion is picking a Hebrew name, and most people try to find a name with meaning. It might be a Hebrew word that expresses some trait that they admire in themselves, or wish they had. It might be a biblical character they relate to. It might be after a person who was meaningful to them. Today, the giyoret (the Hebrew word for "convert") chose to name herself after her son. You see, her son had died, about a dozen years ago. And, it was that death which had led her to search for something, which had led her, eventually, to Judaism.

It is considered a high form of honor to name a child after a deceased ancestor. This is the first time I've encountered someone naming themselves after a deceased descendant.

If you have children, go home, give them a kiss, and thank God that they are carrying their own name.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why does God roar? Why don't we?

Our weekly Talmud study group met again this morning (as we will every Thursday at 9:30 a.m. - join us if you're in town!), and we're up to our second full page of Talmud (which, being the Talmud, is actually page 3. Of course). The whole first section of Talmud deals with trying to figure out when we are required/allowed to say the evening sh'ma - in other words, knowing that we are obligated to say the sh'ma "when we lie down," what does that mean? Literally at our bedtime? At the time of evening when most people go to sleep, even if we aren't? Just "nighttime," perhaps? And, how, exactly, do we define those times? It's all very detailed and technical, and, on occasion, headache inducing.

This week, though, we took a side journey through a quote from Rabbi Eliezer (this is Berachot 3a, if you're following along). Eliezer says, "At each and every watch [3 times a night], the Holy One, Blessed be God, sits and roars like a lion...and the sign for this is as follows [e.g. this is how you know that each watch, and therefore each time of "roaring," has been reached]: at the first watch, a donkey brays; at the second watch, dogs howl; and the third watch, an infant nurses from its mother's breasts and a woman speaks with her husband."

Obscure, to say the least. But, with some helpful hints from the footnotes (which point us further down the text) and some talking it through, we came up with a possible interpretation. The first thing that we need to know is that, according to the sages, the reason for God's howling is the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem. In other words, three times a day, God sits in heaven and cries over the lost Temple and, with it, our exile. The Temple, in case you didn't know, is traditionally understood to have been destroyed because of our sins - it was our fault.

But, why those three signs? What, in God's name [pardon the non-pun], do a donkey, dog and baby have to do with any of this? Quite possibly, nothing. It's possible (and this is strictly my interpretation) that these signs are there because they are so ordinary. Donkeys bray, dogs howl and babies suckle. In other words, those are symbols of ordinary life. Life goes on. The world continues as it was, and as it is.

But, not for God. For God, life is torment. God looks down every day, and sees our people scattered, God's Temple in ruins. Sees discord and pain. And, to make matters worse, sees a world in which no one pays any attention to this. A world which seems to think that this is normal.

Imagine a Social Worker who spends all day trying to help the homeless and hungry, and then goes back home to have dinner at a restaurant with her family. She sees people throwing away mountains of food, not even aware that their scraps would be desperately coveted by those in need. Imagine how hard it would be watching a world where people are so unaware of the pain and misery that surrounds them. Wondering - what would happen if everyone here tried to feed one hungry person today? Could we, together, stop hunger? At least for a while? Imagine how hard it would be for God to watch us, unaware of how far our world is from its potential, and how little we do to fix it.

It is, to me, an incredibly poignant image. So many people criticize God (usually, a God they don't believe in, by the way) for letting bad things happen in the world. What if our sages were on to something, and God is up in heaven, weeping and screaming because we aren't taking charge? What if, through our own actions, we could actually make God smile, instead?

That same passage in the Talmud says that every watch here on earth is paralleled by a watch in heaven. What we do here is reflected "on high." It changes the cosmos. I don't care if you take that literally (I don't). Just know that if you do something good here, you've brought comfort to God.


I've been away a bit more than usual, and that, plus some busy work-stuff, has made it hard to keep up with the blogging. This is me, trying to get back into the swing of things.

Although I've been trying to cut down on the number of blogs I follow (Google Reader is an unbelievable black-hole of time for me), I recently added one, The Art of Manliness (this is where I take a moment to remind my sister, who sometimes reads this blog, that Blog Am is a semi-official work blog, so she should keep her comments to herself). I came across it by random (I think through another blog), and I decided to follow it because a) it doesn't seem to be too busy, so it won't take too much time and b) it has the kind of useless, but still practical, trivia that I love seeing - how to tie 4 different tie knots, how to mix the "5 most important cocktails" and so on. I read it just because it's mildly entertaining.

But, even though I know it isn't meant to be taken seriously, I can't help but wonder about the basic idea - manliness. What exactly does it mean to be a man?

American culture often uses the term "a real man," and that seems to imply something along the lines of John Wayne - tough, resolute. Short of words, long on action. A man's man, as we say. We tell someone who is whining or hesitating to "man up."

But, it's interesting to me that the Yiddish word for "man" is "mensch," which is used completely differently - "a real mensch" is someone who is kind. Someone who is thoughtful. Someone who looks out for others.

And, this bout of ruminating also got me thinking about the passage from Pirkei Avot, the 2000ish year old Rabbinic text which asks "who is mighty? (literally, you could read it as "who is a warrior?") A person who controls his urges." A very different image, to say the least.

So, if we were going to make a blog with the name The Art of Manliness, what would go on it?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


A rare, completely non-Jewish-content rant. A sorbet, to cleanse your virtual pallet, if you will.

So, I'm trying to set up FeedBurner so that I can track visits to this blog, and maybe add a bit of extra functionality. I can't believe how hard it is. I mean, all I really want to do is to know who, if anyone, is reading this stuff. But, I can't quite figure out how. I mean, do I really have to set up post-feed redirects? Do I even know what those are?

Let's all take a minute and remember that I have a degree in Computer Science. I was a professional computer programmer for 3 years (and 2 summers during Rabbinical School). I am, as my sister will be only too happy to tell you, a certified geek. If I can't figure this stuff out, how do "normal" people do it? Sheesh.

Anyway, if you experience any trouble with Blog Am in the near future, please tell me via Facebook or at!

You don't look Jewish

For a change of pace, check out Vanessa Hidary, "The Hebrew Mamita." A tiny bit of foul language, for those watching at work.

Not my usual fare, but I found it pretty cool.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Math and The City

The New York Times ran an article today, about certain mathematical laws which seem to govern everything from the rate at which a cell produces energy, to the distribution of populations in cities. On one level, I just found this article to be really, really cool. But, with my "Rabbi" glasses on, it seems a bit more than that.

First of all, it is, in the purest sense of the word, "Awesome." The intricacies, the interconnection, the subtlety of our world are truly astounding, and awe-inspiring. Anyone who knows my theology knows that I do not believe in a literal Creator God, and I have little time for Intelligent Design*. But, there are times when the world does reveal itself as so remarkable, so fundamentally, radically amazing, that it does give me the sense of something greater than myself. A sense of being in Awe of the One greater than anything else.

*which is different from intelligent design (not capitalized), but that's for another time

And, at the same time, this governing mathematical reality reveals the converse - not just the greatness of God, but the smallness of me, and of you. We all like to think that we're in control of our own destinies, and we certainly know that's true on some level. I was the one who decided to get Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast this morning**. But, we also have to be aware that we aren't really in control. And, I'm not just talking about the "I only went to DD for breakfast because Ben took so long getting ready that I had no time to eat at home" sense. I'm also talking about the fact that we often make decisions for reasons that we don't even know about.

** can anyone tell me why coffee and a corn muffin is such a good combination, especially on a rainy day?

I'd like to think that I moved to Tampa for my own reasons - to be part of a small, dynamic congregation, to be close to family, to get away from freezing cold. But, according to that article, on some level, I moved here as part of some larger plan. This city is going to be a certain size, and I'm a part of that flow of population. Like an ant in the anthill, I may think I'm doing my own thing, but I'm really just a cell in a larger organism.

I know I've said this before, and I'll say it many, many times in the future, but religion is about, in large part, understanding that we are each of infinite worth, but at the same time, we're really insignificant. We are partners with God here on earth, each created in God's image, but we're also insects, serving a larger vision of which we aren't usually even aware.

It's a good morning when some decent coffee, a muffin and the New York times come together to remind me of all of that.