Friday, January 30, 2009

The Superbowl

For my few non-Beth-Am readers, a little background: our congregation is selling programs at the Superbowl, something that we've had the chance to do (thanks to one of our wonderful members) for a number of years now. I'll be one of the sellers, and I'm incredibly excited about being able to go to The Big Game.

But, at the risk of sounding like a kill-joy, I have to admit that I'm finding myself a tiny bit conflicted. There's been a little flurry of articles of late (for example) about how many ex-football players have serious brain damage from repeated traumas. Many are dealing with serious, debilitating effects, and too many are dying young.

My friends know that I love sports, and I really love watching football (not nearly as much as baseball, but that's another posting). I could go on and on about how great the game is and all of that, and I mean it. And, it's also true that football players know what they're getting into, and are very well paid for what they do, which does count for something (this is not the same as throwing slaves into the gladiator arena). But, it's starting to bother me a bit that I get so much enjoyment out of watching people permanently maul each other, and that our congregation is benefiting from it.

As always, I'd be curious to hear your reactions - do you share in my concerns, or do you see this another way?

Shabbat Shalom, and I'll see you at the RayJay on Sunday!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Judging Favorably

This past Shabbat, Mel Tockman led the first of three study sessions/discussions around Pirkei Avot ("Verses of our Fathers"). If you don't know Pirkei Avot (often just called Avot), it's a collection of Rabbinic sayings from almost 2000 years ago, and some of the most famous sayings in Judaism come from here.

In the first chapter of Avot (1:6), we read that Joshua ben Perachya teaches to "judge everyone favorably." Now, Avot being as famous and well-read as it is, quotes like that tend to get skimmed - it's nice sentiment, something that might be found in Chicken Soup for the Rabbinic Soul, but nothing profound. Mel, however, had found a modern commentator who, when talking about this verse, told a story of a woman who was eulogized as doing precisely this: seeing the good in everyone. What those who knew her related, though, was that her insistance on seeing the best in them made them more determined to live up to her judgments. In other words, they found themselves wanting to be the person that she saw, even if they didn't' see it yet.

The current thinking in parenting techniques seems to be pretty strongly in favor of positive reinforcement, over negative. In other words, the books now tell us to praise the heck out of our kids when they do something right, and go easier when they mess up. Some say that this is how we create spoiled children, but the research seems to show that isn't true. Studies are showing that negative reinforcement - chastisements, punishments, etc - don't effectively change behavior. They just get kids to be sneakier about it. But, positive reinforcement works very well, indeed. Make the reward for good behavior good enough, and your kid will work harder to be good (the reward can just be praise, although my experience is that chocolate is also a powerful tool).

So, assuming that the modern thinking and research is right, it dawned on me, when Mel was passing on the story of that "positive thinkier," that there's no reason to think that what's true for kids isn't true for us, too. Ask yourself honestly: how do I react to criticism, and how do I react to praise? Which one is more likely to get me to do what I should? Which is more likely to get me to try to be the best version of me that I can?

If, like me, you respond much more strongly, much more lastingly, much more profoundly to praise, then the next question is, of course, "how do I treat others?" Because, if kids don't respond to criticism, and I don't respond to criticism, then who, exactly, does?

If you want to hear more, come to the next session on Avot - Saturday, Feb 21st at 9:00 a.m.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Lessons in open-mindedness

So, I've clearly been on a "see the other side/don't be a fanatic" kick in my thinking (and blogging). But I just read about a recent decision by the Israeli Supreme Court.

First, the background. Recently, the Central Election Committee of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) voted to ban two Arab parties from the upcoming elections. The reason? These two parties refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist. Yes, it's a strange world, indeed, when a party can refuse to recognize the government of which it wants to be a part. Only in Israel.

But, what's really interesting is that there are also Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties which don't recognize Israel as a State, and no one is trying to ban them from the elections. The Arab parties cried "racism" and sued, and took their grievances to the Supreme Court. Which supported their complaint. Unanimously. They are now back in the election.

Imagine. A government which acts to defend the right to hold and express views, even if those views are that that government shouldn't exist. And, a government which will fight to give those views a public forum.

Americans are fond of the quote "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it." The Israeli Supreme Court just showed us how far we can take that. Israel may not be perfect, but it just gave us all a wonderful lesson in open-mindedness and tolerance.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Now on Facebook!

I've just learned that you can add a blog to Facebook, so if that's your preference, check it out at

(ok, it seems that the functionality ain't all there yet. But, if I get a few "fans," we'll get it partially, at least!)

Why won't they listen?

Another little teaching from this week's Torah portion...

In Exodus 6:9, Moses tells the Israelites that God is getting ready to save them, but they don't listen. Why? Moses tells God that it's because he isn't speaking well (verse 12) - he blames himself. But, Hizkuni points out that Moses is wrong - the text actually tells us that the reason the Israelites wouldn't listen is because "their spirits had been crushed by slavery." They were so downtrodden that they weren't able to hear the good news. It wasn't Moses' fault at all - it was the Israelites'!

Nahmanides, though, has a very different explanation: "You, God, did not make my words ones they could listen to." It wasn't the messenger, and it wasn't the recipient. It was the message.

In the end, any of these are possible. Sometimes, a message doesn't get across because it's delivered poorly - a different approach will yield different results. Sometimes, the target of the message is just not in a place to hear what you have to say. But, sometimes, the message itself is the problem. My guess is that some of us always blame ourselves ("I'm failing") when we fail to get our point across, and some of us always blame the other person ("He's an idiot"). How often do we wonder if maybe it's just the wrong message?

Just a thought for the morning...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One Rock, Many Sparks

This week's Torah portion begins with God speaking to Moses, but the Hebrew for "speaking" is slightly unusual. In trying to explain why the Torah uses this wording, the great commentator Rashi retells a somewhat lengthy midrash (a rabbinic story about the Torah). But after telling it, Rashi then proceeds to explain, in some detail, why this midrash can't possibly be accurate. He even goes so far as to imply that to accept this midrash, you must distort the plain meaning of the original text. For Rashi, who is usually incredibly concise*, this is a strange combination—lots of time retelling the story, followed by even more time tearing that story down. Why bother? Why not skip the entire thing?

*Back when every book was handwritten, it really paid to be concise and deliberate with your words. Kind of the exact opposite of blogging...

The reason is found in the conclusion of his comment. He says "Let the midrash be told anyway, as it says, 'Behold, my word is like fire – declares Adonai – and like a hammer that shatters rock!' (Jer 23:29) – interpreting a verse is like a hammer striking rock: it creates many sparks."

Rashi, like all the great sages, is willing to learn from any source, even one with which he disagrees. The fact that he finds the midrash to be deeply flawed doesn't make it useless. It is one of the sparks created from "striking" this verse. It remains a source of teaching and inspiration, even though he rejects it on some level.

I know I've got pluralism on the brain of late (as I've mentioned, I've been reading "You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right") so forgive me for being repetitive, but how much more interesting, and how much more peaceful, would our world be if we would all acknowledge that there is at least a spark of truth in most of the ideas with which we disagree? Imagine listening to someone expressing an idea completely contrary to your own beliefs, and instead of mustering all of your valid arguments against them, asking yourself "what can I learn from this person? What can I learn from their views?"

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis ask, "who is wise?" And they answer, "one who learns from every person."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nothing to add

One of the strange side-effects of getting some positive feedback on this blog (mixed with a decent sized ego) is a growing desire to post, and to make my thoughts and opinions known. But, what to do when I can't find anything new to say about an important event?

I'm watching the pre-inauguration on-line, and I'm truly taken by the historic nature of the event. Whatever you think about Bush, about Obama, about politics, the simple fact that a black man is becoming our president today is, in every sense of the words, awesome and extraordinary.

I can't imagine saying anything that hasn't been said, ad nauseum, in the past few weeks. So, I will instead just quote Pirkei Avot:

Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel said: "I have been brought up all my life among the wise, and I have never found anything of more benefit to man than silence."

Friday, January 16, 2009

On a lighter note...

From ShysterBall, one of my favorite bloggers, who writes about baseball:

When I joined up with THT, the bosses told me that I should probably avoid writing about religion. And they're right, because there's really nothing good that can come of the subject in an open forum, especially when we're supposed to be talking about baseball. I will say, however -- just in passing -- that the non-existence of God was confirmed to me yesterday morning as I was watching SportsCenter and a commercial came on for Hampton Inn that employed the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends" with some awful muzaked-up arrangement that no all-loving, all-powerful being ever would have allowed to come into creation. So, hey, enjoy the dark void of nothingness, everybody, because apparently that's all we have ahead of us.
So, if anyone has any other ideas how I should be spending my Saturday mornings, I guess this is the time to speak up...

Shabbat Shalom everyone!

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I recently read a blog entry about the nature of uncertainty - it's one of my favorite topics (I think...).

If you have a philosophical bent, you can get yourself in a quandary where you realize that every decision you have to make is actually very to hard to make - there are so many factors and possibilities that it can start to overwhelm the mind. In the blogger's example, when asked what he wants for lunch, he has to assume he knows how different dishes taste - even ones which he may not have tried. Also, he has to consider not only what sounds good now, but what's going to sound good in 5 minutes, and also later today when he is exercising, and so on. The reality is, it's impossible to know what the best answer is to the question, "what do you want for lunch?"

So, then, how do you chose? If you don't want to always go hungry, how do you pick what you eat? At some point, you have to admit that you don't know what's best, and go with your best guess. Make a tiny leap-of-faith (an "order of faith"?). But, an honest, intelligent person will also admit that, however that order turns out, they don't know if it was the best option - there are always roads untaken.

It's not a fun way to go through life; it can be quite frustrating. Absolute surety is much more comfortable and easy:

What I would like to be able to say is, “I want the falafel.” Very definitively, with a sense of authority and calm.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I want the falafel. I swear: I want the falafel.”

I imagine this type of certainty is accompanied by an incredible sense of relief. The endless permutations of This Moment are reduced to one, clear path. All that remains is to take the necessary steps in the right direction. The horrifying image of an infinite number of compasses pointing North in an infinite number of different directions—with a blink, it disappears. North is North. “I swear.” (See, for example, Charlie Chaplin’s paper compass in ‘The Gold Rush’.)

But we are far too limited to attain such certainty. I can do my best but I will never really know what I should have for lunch.
There's an obvious religious parallel here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but surety is nice. It's much easier to be religious (or anything, I suppose) when we're sure that we're doing the right thing. But, if I really think about it, if I can't even say, with 100% confidence, what the "right" lunch is for me, how can I be 100% sure that my God is real, or that my religion is "right", or that my denomination is best? I can't. And that is precisely the difference between me (and, hopefully, you) and a fanatic - the understanding that we never know. We're never sure.

Like with lunch, in matters of faith we must sooner or later place our order, or we're going to be very hungry, and hold up the line (ok, the metaphor might break down, a little). But, that doesn't mean that our order is best. It's just ours. Remembering that we're not sure, not 100%, about that order is an important step, maybe the most important step, in accepting others who have different tastes than we do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Heschel's "The Sabbath"

As part of my preparation for the Shabbat Seminar (starts tomorrow!) I've been re-reading part of A.J. Heschel's The Sabbath. If you've studied with me at all, you probably already know that I think Heschel is one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century - if you're struggling with, or curious about, the intersection of faith and rationality, then you can't do any better than Heschel - he shows a path to true, sincere belief that never requires any abdication of logic or thought.

I don't think I've ever read anything by him which is bad, but I'm particularly overwhelmed by the first chapter of The Sabbath ("Architecture in Time"). I just re-read it, and while I must have literally read these few pages dozens of times in my life, I never fail to be impressed and inspired by them. If you aren't going to make it to the Shabbat Seminar (starts tomorrow! 7:30!), then do yourself a favor and give this first chapter, all 8 pages of it, a slow, careful read.

This time through, what's really striking me is that this opening is, to some degree, a thesis statement. It's Heschel saying, "this is how the world works, as far as I understand it. And, if you want to have a deeper experience in this world - if you want to live a more spiritual life - then here is how you begin."

Heschel was, in some ways, an Orthodox Jew, in that he believed in law and obligation. Things like Shabbat were not options for him; they were, quite literally, commanded. But, that's not how he writes. He never tells us that we have to observe Shabbat, or that we're bad people if we don't. Instead, he offers Shabbat as the most profound way to understand and experience our world, and our God. If you aren't interested in all of that, I think the implication follows, then gey gezunt - go about your way, and don't worry about it.

Maybe that approach is striking me right now because I'm also reading You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (for what it's worth, I'm not finding it a very well-written book (it's pretty scattered and rambly), but the idea inside is so important that it's worth reading, anyway). Hirschfield, an Orthodox Rabbi and self-described ex-fanatic, is trying to articulate a vision of sincere belief which doesn't rely on judging anyone else's beliefs, or lack thereof. In other words, can I be intensely, sincerely Jewish, in my belief/practice/worldview/whatever, but still be totally open to you and your religious experience, whatever it may be? Can I be devoted to Shabbat, but not judge you if you aren't?

Heschel offers one path for doing exactly that. Shabbat is essential, if you want to follow this particular path. If you find this vision of spirituality compelling. But, if you don't, that's ok. There are other paths to spirituality, and other ways to live that aren't about spirituality, at all. There's nothing wrong with living that way, even if I may think that you're missing out on something extraordinary by doing so.

Think of a comparison to music - you might be deeply involved with Classical Music. You might find the complexity, the nuance, the sublime skill of the musicians to be beautiful and powerful. But, maybe I don't get all of that. Maybe I'm happy with my simple pop-music, and just enjoy Classical. You might think that I'm shortchanging myself by not exploring this deeper world of music, but would we ever think or suggest that, because of that disparity, we can't be friends? Or, we can't find other areas of commonality? Or that we can't even talk about music?

Look, I think that the vision that Heschel offers of Shabbat is a deeply compelling picture of what it means to be spiritual, and just reading it makes me want to read more, and to experience some of what he's talking about. But it's at least equally important for me to realize that if you decide that Shabbat isn't that important/interesting/worthwhile, that's your right, too. Even if I do think that you're missing out...

Want to learn more? Did I mention that The Shabbat Seminar starts tomorrow, January 15th at 7:30 p.m.?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gaza and "proportionality"

There's been a lot of talk about the lack of "proportionality" in Israel's response to missile attacks from Gaza. A Christian pastor has written the clearest, most cogent refutation of that criticism that I've seen to date.

In addition to his larger argument, I am particularly moved by his clear distinction between "tragedy" and "evil"

It must be recognized that tragedy is not the same as evil: the death of a child whose school has been used to store rockets is tragic for the government destroying a cache of weaponry, but it is evil for the government endangering its people by using civilian facilities for military purposes.
The rest of the article is well worth the read.

Friday, January 9, 2009

6:30 Services

As many (most?) of you are aware, our congregation has started an experiment - in January and February, we're moving Friday night services to 6:30 p.m. The idea is to try to let people have dinner afterwards (either here, or elsewhere with their friends and family) without feeling rushed. We also hope that earlier services will allow some people to come, who might not be willing or able to make an 8:00 service (although, we know that there are some who won't come early, but would come late).

Well, tonight is only the 2nd such service, but I'm still interested in starting to get feedback - if you come to one of these early services, tell me about it! E-mail me or, even better, post a response to this post.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Dignity of your work

I was re-reading the chapter on Shabbat from Irving Greenberg's The Jewish Way (an amazing chapter from an amazing book) in preparation for my upcoming "Shabbat Symposium" (starting this Thursday, for all Beth Am-ers reading this...) and was reminded of one of my favorite points which he makes.

Judaism, of course, outlaws work on Shabbat, but being Judaism, we also explore exactly what that means - what work is prohibited? What, exactly, is work? What winds up coming through the discussion is that what is prohibited isn't effort, but rather creation - work which makes us, on some level, imitators of God (who is, of course, the ultimate Creator). That's a longer idea he develops, which you can read all about, if you'd like (or, you can come to "Shabbat Symposium").

The interesting side note which Greenberg makes is that this connection between "work" and "God's creation" has an important implication for most of us. Ask yourself a simple question - is what you do, day-to-day, prohibited on Shabbat? If it is, then that means that your day-to-day work must be, on some level, like God's creative work. Holy work.

In other words, if only holy work is prohibited, and your work is prohibited, then your work is holy work.

Do you teach? Do you clean floors? Do you repair computers? Do you do office work? On some level, all of that work is holy, or else it would forbidden on Shabbat.

Whether or not you decide to observe those prohibitions isn't the point (or, at least, isn't the only point). On some level, Shabbat, and the laws of Shabbat, are challenging us to see the sacred in what we all do, day by day.

If you can't do it on Saturday, then it must be holy, today.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Gaza - my take

(this is a version of the sermon I gave on Friday night)

The first thing that I’d like to say about the current situation in Gaza, is that I fully support Israel in this. I think that it’s important to begin that way, because there are so many voices condemning Israel for its actions over the past week or two. To paraphrase Rabbi Stanley Davids, Israel’s act of self-defense is being viewed, as it always is, as the cause, not the result, of rising tensions and human suffering. But make no mistake, Israel’s actions are the result of violence; they’re not the origin of it.

Hamas rules in the West Bank, as they have ever since they were elected there, in 2006. They openly and officially call for the destruction of Israel, and they openly and officially call for the use of terror – for the murder of civilians – to achieve that goal. Since 2001, population centers in Southern Israel have been the target of over 4000 rockets, as well as countless mortar shells*. For the past six months, there has been a lull in fighting. That lull is often referred to as a ceasefire, especially in the press, but it is no such thing; during those six months, Hamas has launched 215 rockets at Israel. And then, on December 21st, Hamas announced its unilateral decision to not renew the lull.

* Since posting this, I've seen many sources with significantly higher counts of rockets and artillery fire. I mention this for accuracy, only; I don't think the higher numbers materially change anything, as far as this analysis goes.

This is the context in which Israel has acted. They have an enemy, on their doorstep, actively pursuing their destruction, and doing it primarily through the means of the murder of innocent civilians. Even Mahmoud Abbass, the leader of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank claimed, at the outbreak of the Israeli operation, that Hamas is responsible for this violence. Similarly, although the Arab street is up in arms, the leaders of the various Arab nations have been nearly silent on this, which many in the west are taking as a sign that they, too, understand that Israel was forced to act, and to act decisively.

To those who still oppose Israel in that, I continue to ask a simple question – what would you have Israel do? They already unilaterally left Gaza, even removing the settlers, which cost the country dearly. All that accomplished was to give Hamas a safer base from which to rearm and plan their assaults. They engaged in a cease-fire (they refrained from attacking, while Hamas was “observing” their lull) which, again, only gave Hamas a chance to regroup. You can claim that they should be involved in more diplomacy, and you might be right, but what country would ever negotiate with an enemy which is seeking not victory, but annihilation?

It’s hard to find official stats, but the number of civilian deaths seems to be very low, considering the size of the offensive. Israel has, as it nearly always does, been taking enormous pains, even putting its own pilots at risk, to minimize the deaths of the innocent. It is impossible to avoid them completely – the terrorists purposefully use civilian centers as their bases, precisely to make it impossible for Israel to attack without harming civilians. Many are of the opinion that international law places the blame for the deaths of civilians on those who hide among them. I don’t know law, but morally, I find that compelling. Alan Dershowitz, a few years ago, pointed out that, in American jurisprudence, if the police, in trying to stop me from a crime, accidentally kill an innocent, then I am guilty of murder. The same applies here – the Palestinian terrorists are guilty of murdering their own people, and they are using Israel as their weapon of choice

I also need to say, because it really does need saying, that these deaths, while they might be justified, are without question, tragedies. Last week, I read of a leader of Hamas who ignored warning from Israel to leave his house and was then killed in a bombing – one which took the lives of his 4 wives and 11 children. 11 Children. It’s horrific.

I will defend, to my dying day, Israel’s right to engage in war with a vicious enemy, and that’s what Hamas is – a vicious enemy. But, I pray that I never find myself happy about that war, or satisfied with the deaths of those whose only “crime” is being born into such wretched circumstances As always, those who have died, on both sides – innocent, guilty – share one thing in common. They were each created, each and every one, Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image. My heart is heavy with the thought that the country that we love so much is being forced to kill innocents, to kill children. None of them deserve this, not one. Golda Meir famously once said that she could forgive Israel’s enemies for killing our children, but she could never forgive them for making us kill theirs.

It is one thing to be willing to fight. But, to revel in the deaths of our enemies, and especially to revel in the deaths of the innocent, is a tragedy, and a crime. It is profoundly un-Jewish. I will confess to the smallest sliver of my being which, on occasion, harbors these types thoughts. I am ashamed of it, and I recognize it as the yetzer ha-ra, the impulse for evil, which is a part of each of us. In this war, Israel may find survival, but in the despising of these deaths, each and every one of them, we may find our humanity

I make no suggestions on how to conduct or conclude this war. I am not a military strategist, nor a politician. What I am is a Jew, who prays for a day when this war will be over, truly over. Not in a lull, but rather no longer necessary. I pray for a day when the Palestinian people can have the homeland that they so richly deserve, and can live side-by-side with us, living in our own homeland, no less deserved.

I pray for a day when we can live Zecharia’s words, the words we read as Chanukah ended, and this war began: “Not by might, not by power, but by the spirit of the Eternal God,” shall we survive

Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom Aleinu v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel – may the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens, let peace descend on us, on all Israel, and on all the world.


I'm planning on posting a piece about the situation in Gaza sometime soon. For now, here's a piece written by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, which is well worth reading, as well as another moving one by Yossi Klein HaLevi.

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem...

Friday, January 2, 2009

There's a Famine in the Land

Joel Hoffman (a teacher of mine, to whom I've linked before) recently posted a beautiful piece, comparing our current economic situation to the famines our ancestors faced in the Torah. It's a quick read, but well worth it.

May this be a year of plenty for all of us.

Rabbi Rosenberg