Friday, February 27, 2009


I just came across an interesting Midrash in an article by Rabbi Berel Wein. In this week's Torah portion, we get the commandment to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, and we soon learn that a man named Bezalel is to be the chief architect/designer of the project. The Midrash that Rabbi Wein points us to says that Bezalel was, in fact, a teenager. Why would it say that? What can we learn from that?

Perhaps the Torah wants us to realize that only the young, those still pure and uncontaminated, are worthy of such a task. They still have ideals that have not been allowed to deteriorate in the face of life's practicalities and difficulties. Thus their approach to building a Mishkan will of necessity be less tainted and conflicted than that of the older, wiser but more battered adults.

It's an interesting idea: teens are well known for often being somewhat prophetic in their zeal - I can think of many times that a Youth Grouper got obsessed with some issue of justice - from Refusenicks in the Soviet Union to the synagogue using non-eco-friendly coffee - and just wouldn't let go of it. They went after their cause with an almost maniacal devotion. It's easy, as adults, to see that zeal as naive, or immature, or somehow inappropriate. But, it's worth remembering that there is something very pure, and very powerful, in that kind of zeal. Idealism without realism might not be the most effective thing in the world, but it certainly has its place.

How interesting would it be if the Midrash was right, and God was, in fact, saying that the only one worthy of building the mishkan was someone who had that fire, and that zeal. Like I said in my last post, I keep talking about the danger of single-minded zeal (and, I still believe all of that). But, as always, there's something to the other side. Or, to put it a bit differently, and risk driving myself crazy, maybe we shouldn't be too fanatical about opposing fanaticism?

[By the way, if you find this interesting, try to find a copy of the essay Priest and Prophet by Ahad HaAm. It's a classic piece which explores the relationship between Prophets - people who are zealously devoted to core principles, and refuse to accept any compromise in them - and Priests - people who represent the institutions of society, and are always willing to seek compromise to allow principles to be acted out in reality. Ahad HaAm's thesis is that a healthy society needs both - without Priests, nothing ever gets done; without prophets, compromise goes too far, we stray from our core principles and nothing of worth ever gets done!]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


So, I sometimes think that I could skip all of the writing and talking and pontificating that I've done these past few months, and just pass out an index card with two bullet points:
  • Shabbat is good, rest is good; take some time
  • Complexity is good; fundamentalism and extremism are bad
This Op-Ed, from the New York Times, belongs with the 2nd bullet point.

Democracy, at its best, rests on a foundation of mutual respect among co-equal citizens willing to take the time for serious debate. After all, even on the momentous issues that divide us, there is usually the possibility that the other side has a good argument. Yet if we paint our opponents as monsters, we owe them no obligation to pay attention to what they have to say.

Forty-five years ago, in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter warned against this tendency, and worried that it would recur in every era. There is, he suggested, something in the Western psyche that too often makes us retreat to a vision of politics in which there is no complexity. “Since what is at stake,” wrote Hofstadter, “is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

If there's a Great Truth to be taught in Judaism, I'm sure that it somehow connects to the idea that truth is complex. Arguments are rarely between a "right idea" and a "wrong idea," but rather about sorting out which parts of each idea are right, even when they seem to contradict. Fundamentalism, the belief in a simple, direct, absolute Truth isn't only dangerous (which it is), it's also simply wrong. Truth is never simple, and truth is never direct.

One day, maybe I'll have the time, energy and discipline to write a book. And, I'm pretty sure that this is what it will be about. In the mean time, just remember that "always sure, but never right" is not a complement!

A Tech-Free Vacation

After a week of being sick, followed by a week of vacation, I'm back, and trying to get back into the swing of things, blogging-wise. Here's a quick article by an avowed techie who goes a week (a whole week!) without access to his toys:

I'll admit that the anxiety would still creep up every once in a while, and I'd have to shake my head and stare at the brilliant blue ocean until the feeling subsided. It always did, and I can remember long stretches of time where I didn't once think about my phone, my computer, Twitter, Facebook, or the Internet. In those times, I read, drew, engaged with my family, and lived a blissfully tech-free, 20th-century lifestyle.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm still, at heart, a techie-geek. I love my toys, and I covet an iPhone more than any healthy person should. But, many of heard me speak about the need to remember who's in charge - who is the master, and who is the slave? When our tech-toys become an addiction, I really do think it's a problem.

That's why (well, one of the big reasons) I've become such a stickler for not using technology on Shabbat in synagogue. There's something to be said for taking one day a week, not worrying about the news, e-mail, work and "out there," and instead focusing on family, friends and the curious sensation of having time pass, without having each moment filled by something else.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I have some quibbles with it, but here's a nice article discussing the true nature of faith, and discounting the kind of "blind faith" that so often gets presented as "true faith." Here's a sample:

According to Jewish philosophy, our trust in the Almighty is not the "leap of faith" that comes from believing without logic or reason, but the confidence that comes from knowing that the Almighty has proven His faithfulness to His people again and again over 3,300 years of uniquely supernatural history. It derives not from our faith that everything will turn out the way we want all of the time, but our certainty that everything is guided by Providence, and that the logic behind every divine edict is true and just — even when it is unfathomable to human understanding.

Finally, faithfulness does not require us, nor even advise us, to sit by passively and await the Divine Will to reveal itself before us. Rather, it requires us to act in our own best interest while adhering to the moral laws of G-d and man.

Anything which rescues the word "faith" from the hands of the fanatics is a good thing, to me!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Prayers for healing

I recently got an e-mail from someone who was wondering about an inconsistency in the service. I've mentioned during services (probably many times) that I don't believe in a God who interferes, directly and literally, with humankind. But, we do include, every Friday night, a prayer in which we ask God to grant healing to those who are ill. Why do we do that, if I believe that God doesn't really get involved on that level?

Because it's a great question (and observation), and because I'm sure others have similar questions, I'm posting my response here:
It’s a very good question, and one which requires a better answer than I can give via e-mail. Consider this a start to a larger conversation.

The first thing to realize is that not everyone thinks like I do. There are those who believe in “intercessionary prayer” – prayers which ask God for a particular result, whether that be health, happiness or victory in baseball. And, there are those of us who don’t. Part of why I keep that prayer in place is to acknowledge those who feel that the prayer is more directly effective than I do. This, of course, brings up the important but complex issue of religious leadership – how much do I impose my own views on the congregation? Knowing where to draw the line is very difficult – I err on the side of openness here, largely because of what an emotional issue health and healing is for many.

But, there’s more to it than that. There’s also an awareness that scientific studies show that people who know they are being prayed for show marked improvement in their healing. In other words, even if these prayers don’t work in a direct, almost magical way, they still might have a profound impact.

Last, and certainly not least, there is the issue of religious metaphor. My kind of faith provides very few opportunities for simple, literal statements. Most religion is, in my view, a kind of sacred poetry, in which we say things which aren’t literally true, but help point us to a larger, ineffable truth. And so, while I certainly don’t believe that God is more likely to heal someone faster simply because we ask God to do so, I do believe that the prayer has other, more subtle meanings, which are true in a different sense. It’s interesting that you picked up on this one prayer, though, because I do believe that, from this point-of-view, it’s one of the most problematic. It’s harder to understand this prayer symbolically than most other prayers; despite all of my explanations, I’m still not 100% comfortable with its inclusion!

Friday, February 6, 2009


Beth Am members might know a congregant of ours by the name of Aaron Kraselsky. Mr. Kraselsky is our oldest member (I forget his exact age, but I believe he's well into his 90's), and he's from Dothan, Alabama. Between his origin and his age, he maintains about him a stateliness which hard to describe, but which you'll recognize if you know him, or someone like him.

Like most people his age, Mr. Kraselsky suffers from a number of maladies (although his mind is still remarkably sharp). Due to some circulation trouble he's been fighting for a while, he recently got the news that the doctors need to amputate one of his legs, just below the knee. The surgery is scheduled for today (Friday), so I went to see him in the hospital yesterday.

All that he wanted to talk about was how lucky he was, and how happy he was. A wife he loves and adores until this day. Doting, loving children. 20 grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. A long life, filled with blessing and happiness.

He lays there, in his hospital bed, waiting for a doctor to remove his leg, and all he can do is offer a litany of hapiness and blessing in his life. As I often do after visiting him, I felt somewhat ashamed of my own complaints. We should all feel as lucky as he does.

I asked him if he minded me sharing some of this with others - he was almost surprised I'd ask. "Of course not! Tell everyone." A gift to all of us, from someone who has so many, and is aware of each and every one.

Shabbat Shalom