Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More than one way to be a Jew

Jesse Paikin (who was the Regional Youth President when I was working in Toronto) has a blog, and he posted a wonderful piece today about Jewish pluralism.

There will always be those who say that the way they practice Judaism is the only valid way to do so. They're wrong:

[speaking about songwriter Leonard Cohen] And yet, there are those who would accuse him of reneging against his Judaism. You see, Leonard Cohen also embraces a Zen-oriented lifestyle which - for some - is sufficient grounds to expunge him from the Jewish people. Heavy.

In his 2006 “Book of Longing,” Cohen responds to these accusations with poetic eloquence:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final.

The pen is mightier, indeed.

If someone would like to embroid that poem on a pillow, or get in on a mug, or anything like that, and give it to me, that would be cool...

A Short Rant

Permit me, if you would, a short rant.

Last week, we began reading the book of Leviticus, and probably a dozen times during that week, I read a d'var torah about Leviticus that began, "this Torah portion stinks."

Well, none of them actually said that; they all used a lot more words to make it sound nicer. "The book of Leviticus, dealing with laws of the ancient Sacrificial System, makes little sense to us, in our modern world." "No one relishes giving a sermon about Leviticus." "How are we, in our day and age, supposed to make sense of these strange regulations about sacrifices, and blood, and offerings, and so on?" None of these are direct quotes (to protect the guilty), but they're all pretty close to something I read, and something I read every year. It's not only this portion; there are a few others, but never as consistently. Every teaching about the book of Leviticus begins by telling us how boring, irrelevant or otherwise strange this book is.

I hate this. It drives me crazy. Let me explain why:
  • Don't insult the Torah. I know it sounds trite, but I just don't think that, in the long run, we're going to find meaning and inspiration in a book which we deride. This book, all of it, has been the source of our people's strength and connection with God for thousands of years. Maybe we should start with the assumption that it has something to teach us.

  • Don't be too impressed with yourself. All of these teachings that begin as anti-Leviticus screeds go on to find some insight in the text. Some way to reinterpret or filter this "obscure" text so that it does, in fact, have meaning. And, inherently, this means that the text isn't so great, but the interpreter sure knows his/her stuff! It's like a magician: "look, there is no meaning in this book, but I, the great Karnak, will make meaning appear!"

  • Don't degrade the teaching. This one is the real kicker for me. Very often, after we get through all of the "Leviticus is junk" stuff, we find ourselves with a really great teaching. But, the teacher has just told us that it's not really found in the book. The book is, after all, meaningless. But, we can pretend that the teaching is there. Some Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and we're all better people.

    Hey - if the teaching is found in the book (or, if you think it is), then teach it. If it isn't, then don't. But, if it is, then guess what? The book - it isn't so bad. You (and we) just learned something from it!
In the ancient world, our ancestors knew that, in order to get close to God, they had to take their best, and offer it up. They were, mostly, farmers and herdsmen, so their best came from their flocks. So, that's what they offered. Nothing, really, has changed. If we want to get close to God (and keep in mind that the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, really means "a drawing near") then we need to offer our best. What that best is, and how it's offered, has changed radically. But, the basic, religious impulse at the heart of Leviticus is shockingly unchanged in the thousands of years during which time we've been reading it. It has plenty to teach us.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Why Rabbi Marmur loves Israel

Rabbi Dow Marmur was the Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto for the period just before I arrived there. As a result, I never got to know him well, but I did to some degree. He's a wonderfully smart man, and a keen observer of things around him; I grew to always appreciate his insights.

He lives half the year in Israel, and when he's there he writes regular missives (always 1 page) about Israeli society, politics, etc. He is often pessimistic (as he readily admits), but I'd say not in a dour kind of way. More in a clear-eyed, "I see the problems and I'm going to talk about them" kind of way. Given the situation of late - the aftermath of the Gaza war, the lack of positive peace talks with the Palestinians, Iran, the new government - Rabbi Marmur has had a lot to complain about in recent weeks. So, I was surprised to get from him, this morning, an article talking about why he loves Israel so much. Coming from someone is so honest about Israel's failings, it was especially poignant (to me, anyway). And because, as he says, he avoids most of the cliches on the topic, I found it very interesting, as well. With his permission, I'm posting it here, for your reading pleasure:


If things are so bad in Israel, why are they so good? I imagine that some who read my pessimistic reports want to know. In view of my often critical comments about Israeli politics they’re entitled to wonder why I spend so much time there. What follows is an attempt to provide an answer without resorting, I hope, to the standard clich├ęs, even though I may not necessarily disagree with the popular sentiments they express.

  • Things are so good in Israel because I feel engaged in its future and free to express critical opinions about it. As I belong to Israel, so does it belong to me and to everybody who shares in its destiny. Feeling so much a part of my fellow Jews, whether or not I agree with them, I’ll continue to oppose those who, in the guise of piety and fidelity to Jewish teachings, want to keep me out because I’m a Reform Jew.
  • In Israel I live Judaism not only in my home and in the synagogue but in the street and in everything in which I’m involved, good and bad.
  • I’m constantly amazed at the human ingenuity that has created this modern state. Israel celebrates the human spirit at its best and, alas, also at its not-so-good. But all of it is real and open to the scrutiny of Jewish teachings and the experience of Jewish history.
  • I’m committed to Israel because I know that, without it, I’d have to choose between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of the ghetto, the two monsters that threaten Jewish life in the diaspora. In both situations I’d be considered, in the words of Hannah Arendt, either a parvenu or a pariah. My love of Israel differs at times from ways others express it, because I believe that defending every Israeli political and military action harms it instead of helping it. To love a country isn’t to be a mental and emotional slave to those who rule it, even if they’ve been democratically elected.
  • I believe that the future of Judaism is bound up with the future of Israel. In view of what we’ve been through as a people and considering our condition in today’s world, I’m convinced that without Israel Jews would soon become a quaint curiosity, like the Amish, and Judaism a museum item.
  • Being free from the fear of both assimilation and ghettoization I’m in a better position to care about others. Living among my people makes me more sensitive to the needs of all peoples, because I feel I’ve a share in the affairs of the world in ways that parvenus and pariahs don’t. Particularism is the twin of universalism, not its enemy.
  • Though it’s no longer fashionable, I still believe that modern Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people. Because I’m committed to it, I see it as my responsibility to champion the liberation of all peoples, not least the Palestinians. My hope is that, instead of seeing Zionism as their oppressive and imperialist enemy, Palestinians will come to recognize Israel as an opportunity that, all rhetoric notwithstanding, their Arab and Muslim brothers have hitherto denied them.
  • There are many beautiful places in Israel but for me Jerusalem is special, both in its physical beauty and in its link to the past. Here heaven and earth meet and holiness is in the air, even if car fumes pollute it. Living in Jerusalem is a unique privilege.
  • Five of the ten members of the immediate family with which my wife and I are blessed live here.
  • In the words of Amos Oz: I love Israel even when I can’t stand it.

Jerusalem 27.3.09 Dow Marmur

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Trust Uncertainty

Another entry in the "Uncertainty/Complexity" category...

In a New York Times Op-Ed today, Nicholas Kristof talks about the danger of trusting experts. Part of the problem, he writes, is that experts, at least the ones we hear from in the media, tend to be sure of themselves:
The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.


Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.
Someone once taught me that I should be suspicious of clean answers to messy questions - it usually proves that the person isn't really addressing the whole question. How can you take a wildly complex issue ("When does life begin?" "What does God want from us?" "What's the right reaction to the current economic crisis?" "Who makes the best Pizza in Tampa?*) and expect it have a single, perfect answer? That's just not how the world works: complex issues need complex answers.

I don't know if Tetlock included religious leaders in his study of experts, but I think that a good guideline for anyone looking for religious guidance is: Doubt someone who knows; trust someone who wonders.

* Actually, this one is easy. Best New York Pizza on Dale Mabry. I think.

Friday, March 20, 2009

We don't need you, and that's a good thing

One of my all-time favorite teachings comes from this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayakheil-Pekudei. Moses is taking in collections to build the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary in the desert), and the gifts flow in at such a rate that he soon has more than he needs (Rabbi now pauses for reverential tear). The Torah tells us: "their efforts has been more than enough for all the tasks to be done."

But, the commentator Sihot Tzaddakim notices that the Hebrew doesn't say exactly that. It actually reads: "their efforts had been enough for all the tasks to be done, and more." Not "more than enough," but "enough, and more." If we read the Torah literally, then it's telling us that the collection had been enough, and it had been more than enough. But, those aren't the same thing. So, which one was it?

Well, both. Because, in this case, they're exactly the same thing. Because, Sihot Tzaddakim continues, God wasn't going to be satisfied until there was more than enough. If there was just enough, then it woudln't be good enough, so it wouldn't, in fact, be enough. The reason? If there was just enough, then each person could look at the completed tabernacle and say, "I made that possible. If it hadn't been for my contribution, then this tabernacle could never have been built." But, when we got more than enough, then each person would realize that their contribution was not, strictly speaking, necessary. They were, in the end, expendible. And, in the case of building something holy, that's exactly what we need to be. Not unimportant, but not irreplacable, either.

The sages tell us that arrogance is the opposite of holiness - God can't dwell where arrogance lives. It's almost a physical thing - there's room in here for my ego or for God, but not for both. If I want to create a holy space, I need to first remove arrogance and self-importance. I have to know that, even though I may be valued, I'm not essential. That I may be important, but I'm not that important.

A synagogue (or a church, or a business, or a family) isn't going to be healthy if it relies too much on any one person. And, it's certainly not going to be healthy if too many people think that it relies on them - that they are the reason the synagogue (or church, or business, or family) continues to survive. Holiness can start to enter our lives when we realize that we aren't that important. That the world might be less than it is without us, but it would go on, all the same.

We bring our gifts. We make our tabernacle. But we realize that each of us is one piece of a much larger puzzle. And, in realizing how small we are, we sometimes manage to connect with Something much greater than ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, March 6, 2009

Who's this for, anyway?

An interesting debate, of sorts, comes out of the traditional commentaries on this week's Torah portion. God tells Moses "...instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil" (Exodus 27:20). A few sages wonder why it says "bring you" instead of "bring Me." Two of them give answers that are, on the surface, contradictory, but somehow both seem completely right!

The Bekhor Shor says that, even though God says "bring you," God really means, in fact, "Bring Me." Of course the oil is for God - no one would ever think that we're lighting lamps to sanctify or honor Moses - God forbid! So, why then use the phrase "Bring you"? Perhaps it's a reminder that this is a mistake that people often make - they start to think of their religious leaders as a stand-in for God. We become intermediaries, necessary for reaching God, rather than teachers and facilitators, helping others to reach God themselves. Maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that, even when we do something with a Rabbi (or, maybe, a Priest, or Imam, or anyone), we have to remember that that person isn't really the point - they aren't any holier than we are. It's really about God.

But at the same time, Hizkuni says that the reason that the Torah says "bring you" is because the oil is, in fact, for Moses (the "you"), not for God. How so? Well, God has no need for light! Light is a human need, not a devine one. So it is for all rituals - God doesn't need these things. God can't literally eat a sacrifice, or enjoy a light, or be impressed by a ritual - these are human endeavors. And, although this may get a bit more controversial, I think the same has to be true with prayer. If prayer was a simple, straightforward act, then that would mean that my asking God for something is informing God that I want something (as if, before I started, God didn't know that I wanted a pony. But, now that I've asked for it, God knows). But, that would mean that, before I prayed, there was something which God didn't know, which means that God doesn't know everything - and that just ain't God anymore.

The Rabbis are willing, for the most part, to admit that the entirety of the sacrificial system (which was, in its day, the main religious activity of our people, and the primary way to pray to God) were a concession to human needs. God doesn't need the sacrifices, but we needed them, as a way to structure and concretize our relationship with God.

So, what are we left with? The idea that, according to the Bekhor Shor, all ritual acts are always directed at God, balanced against Hizkuni's belief that, in reality, all ritual acts are always for us. And, strange as it may seem, they both seem completely right.

Shabbat Shalom