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.