Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Self Importance

In preparing for my Passover seders, I came across a bunch of quotes and ideas which didn’t really fit the seder that I was creating, but still really caught my attention, anyway. Most of them will take longer than I have right now to do justice to, but one of my favorites was a quick quote from an unnamed Hassidic Rabbi:

If you think you can live without others, you are mistaken; but if you think others cannot live without you, you are even more mistaken.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

3 words. 3 prayers.

A Rabbi that I know and respect recently taught me that, in reality, there are only three prayers in the world. Each of them is one word long. We spend a lot of time trying to find longer, fancier, more erudite sounding versions of these three prayers, but that’s really just vamping on a theme.

Please. Thanks. Wow.

Three words. Three prayers. Not bad.

An interview with our Scholar-In-Residence

As most Beth Am members know by now, this weekend, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to welcome Dr. Joel Hoffman as our Scholar In Residence. In addition to speaking Friday night and leading Torah study Saturday morning, Dr. Hoffman will be talking about his new book And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning on Saturday night (starting at 7:30).

The Tampa Jewish Federation, a co-sponsor of this weekend, sat for a video-conference interview with Dr. Hoffman, and if you’d like to get a taste of what his book is about, take a peek at

If you aren’t able to make the talk, it’s still more than worth picking up the book – it’s a totally different approach to the Bible than most of us have ever taken before!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A vague hope for the future

Like many of us, I’ve been following, with great dismay, the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Israel and America, which was sparked by the ridiculous decision to announce more building in East Jerusalem – the announcement coinciding with a visit from Vice President Biden. I’ve been reading enough on both sides of this issue to be thoroughly confused, at this point (was this intentionally provocative? Is America overreacting?) One thing seems clear – the best thing that can be said about the Israel government at this point is that it was unbelievably stupid and inept. All other options are much more sinister and/or disturbing.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis has written an interesting response to the situation. It’s interesting because it posits that, counter-intuitively,  building settlements in Palestinian areas might be good for the the long-term prospects of peace:

“Look,” he said. “Some day, they’re going to be ready for serious talks. They’re going to make a huge concession, and recognize your right to exist. But they’re going to expect a similarly grand concession from you. Your concession can’t be recognizing their right to a state, because you’ve already done that. And you can’t compromise on the return of refugees, because then you have no Jewish state. So you need something massive that you can give up on – and that’s going to be the settlements. You’ll have to evacuate and destroy most of them in the end, but if you do that now, then what will you offer at the table? The settlements are your key to making peace eventually.”

I’m not saying that I buy the logic – it seems pretty far-fetched to me. But, as someone who longs for the day when the Palestinians and the Jewish people each have a safe, secure, viable state, and when they can actually be at peace with one another, it’s nice to have a version of this entire mess that ends happily. Even if it’s mostly a fantasy.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And all of its inhabitants.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What, exactly, am I pledging allegiance to?

I apologize, but this post is really more punditry than Jewish teaching.  Although, if you'd like, I can probably find some way to tie it back to Judaism, pretty easily.  Anyway…

My son’s school begins each day by assembling around the outdoor flagpole (weather permitting, of course) and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and the national anthems of America and Israel.  Because my son goes to school on the same campus as my synagogue, I'm the one who drives him to school every day, and so I start my day off with the pledge and anthems, too. 

Lately, for some reason, I've found myself struggling with the opening lines of the pledge.  “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” Why “the flag”?  What does it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag, exactly?

Let me be clear about something: I am patriotic.  I love America.  Despite some areas in which I definitely think America could do better (after six years in Canada, I really can't see very many arguments against Universal Health Care, for example), I'd argue that, on the whole, we live in the best country in the world.  And so, I don't have any problem with pledging allegiance to America (blind allegiance would be, of course, a different story).

And, I don't have a problem with flags, per se. As a religious Jew, and a Rabbi, I'm very comfortable with the idea of symbols.  I think that they're an important part of religious (and quasi-religious) systems.

But maybe, as I'm thinking about it, the problem is not with the symbol, but rather with the elevation of the symbol to an icon.  Forgetting that the symbol is supposed to point us at something greater, and not be the focus of our attention, or adoration, itself.

I promise, I really thought this was an idle, pundit–like post.  But, I've only just now realized that, in fact, it really is about religion.  And maybe that's why I've been thinking about the Pledge so much even though, deep down, I don't really care all that much about it.  Maybe this is just one small example of a larger problem, about which I often complain (sometimes, even, on this very blog).  About the very human tendency to focus on the details of religion, over and against the larger ideals.  On the ongoing inclination to turn our symbols into idols.  To, in the words of Heschel, focus on Religion, and to forgot to focus on religion.  That is, to worry about our institutions, often at the expense of the very values to which those institutions are supposed to be dedicated.

I'm not going to make a big fuss about this.  I'm not going to begin campaigning for a change in the text of the Pledge.  I'm not going to boycott morning flagpole with Ben.  I just don't have the time, or energy, to bother.  But, I have a feeling that, from now on, when I recite those words, I'll be reminding myself that I really don't pledge allegiance to the flag.  I only pledge allegiance to the important things.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hatred - its all the same

Another quick musing from my conference blogging:

I was on the "Coffee Beatniks and Jewish Lit" tiyul (excursion) today. The speaker, a poet/author/artist (I guess I can just say "Beatnik," right) was talking about a trip he took to Germany, where he was surprised to see a number of Confederate Flags. When he also noticed a great number of skinheads around those flags, he decided (without revealing his Jewishness, naturally) to ask them why they had so many Stars-and-Bars. The answer was that the Swastika had been outlawed in Germany, so they couldn't fly that flag. This was their substitute.

It brought up, for me, two totally disparate thoughts. First of all, it's silly to ban hatred, or its symbols. I'm not saying that I'm in favor of hatred (my favorite part of the Beat Museum was a simple poster which said, "F#$K Hatred" - with that first word spelled out, obviously). But, forcing it underground seems, to me, to be ineffective, at best. At worst, it keeps the hatred out of site where it can fester without being confronted. But, more often than not, the hatred just takes another form. Confront hatred, and hateful people, more directly, I'd say.

I also found myself (as others did) thinking about the universal nature of hate. To these skinheads, it didn't matter what hatred was being represented, or where it came from. They were brothers, unified in their hate, and that was enough. Hatred, in any form, is still just hatred.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Who's the Messiah

I'm currently away at a Rabbinic conference, and I've been asked (along with others) to blog about it while I'm there. If you're really interested, you can check it out, but in the mean time, I thought I'd share this little item with my regular readers (the few, the proud, the much appreciated):

I got a chance this afternoon to study with Rabbi Larry Kushner, and he discussed some Hassidic texts on Rabbinic leaders and spirituality. I'm a big fan of Rabbi Kushner, having had the chance to study with him in New York.

Overall, the session was great. It may not have been new, but Rabbi Kushner would be the first to tell us that "new" is overrated. The important spiritual truths are well known and obvious; we just need constant reminding about them. For example, the surest sign of a true tzaddik, and a good leader, is the constant awareness that there is a spiritual level which he or she has yet to attain. It's the constant search, and the constant humility, which is the true sign of spirituality, and of leadership.

During an aside, it also led Rabbi Kushner to offer one of his many wonderful quips. Quoting Zalman, he said, "If someone says that he's the Messiah, check with his wife, first."
Boy, do I love that line!

Friday, March 5, 2010

When you must violate Shabbat

It’s well known in the Jewish world that it is an obligation to violate Shabbat if a life is at stake. Despite the laws which restrict all manner of work on that day, if someone is in danger, then we suspend all of those laws. That principle is as old as Judaism.

But, I read a new twist on it today. What if there are multiple people available to save a life? Who, in that case, should be the one to violate Shabbat? Logic would seem to say that if a non-Jew is available, then he/she should do it, so that the life can be saved and Shabbat can be honored. It turns out that, according to most authorities, the opposite is true. The Jew must violate Shabbat and save the life, rather than ask the gentile to do it.

Why? Because someone who observed the situation might mistakenly think that, based on what he/she saw, Judaism values Shabbat more than life. And, that possibility, slim as it might be, is too great to risk. In fact, Maimonides, one of the great legal scholars in Jewish history, says that the most pious Jew available (among those qualified to help the person in need) must be the one to do so, to make it absolutely clear that this is the proper Jewish way to behave.

It’s not only important to put people above ritual. It’s important to be bold about it, and proud.

Just like we’re always telling our kids, “people over things.” And, even though our rituals are holy things, they’re still things. People matter more. Let’s always be clear about that.