Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fasting and more on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is well-known as a fast day in Judaism. From sundown until sundown, we are not supposed to eat or drink anything at all (of course, exceptions are made for health). In fact, fasting is only the best-known of the Yom Kippur restrictions—there are actually five major ones:

  1. Eating/drinking
  2. bathing (for pleasure, not for basic cleanliness)
  3. sex
  4. wearing leather shoes
  5. anointing (which was probably more common couple of thousand years ago than it is now, although, if you include lotions and such, then it's still pretty relevant to a lot of people)

Together, these five restrictions are supposed to constitute “afflicting the soul,” in the words of the Torah. Why do we do that? Well, as usual, the Torah doesn't tell us, explicitly, so we don't have one answer. At the simplest, most obvious level, it's a form of punishment—a kind of self-flagellation. This is our Day of Atonement, so we symbolically punish ourselves (or, I guess, not so symbolically) for all the things that we did wrong this past year.

The explanation which I remember most from my childhood revolved around learning to appreciate what we have, and being more sensitive to those who go without. Whenever I would complain about being hungry, it seems that someone would always say, “Just think about those who are this hungry every day.” Our own small act of sacrifice can remind us of how fortunate we are, and drive us to help those who are truly needy.

Fasting can also be, for some of us, a form of concentration. I remember being told, many times, that we don't eat on Yom Kippur because we don't have time—we are supposed to be so busy with our prayers, our personal reflection, and our teshuvah (repentance) that we can't even take a break to take care of ourselves. Even though that's probably never the literal truth (I doubt that anyone is really capable of focusing solely on those lofty topics for every waking moment of an entire day) it's still a valuable teaching. The work of Yom Kippur is substantial—it's not something we can complete in just a couple of hours. If we really want to do teshuvah, and we're going to have to seriously dedicate ourselves to it during the time leading up to the High Holy Days, and especially on those days, themselves.

We'll be able to eat when the sun goes down. Until then, we'll have more important things to be doing.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reform Judaism and traffic laws

I don't usually quote myself, but I was just looking at an old sermon, one which tried to explain what Reform Judaism is really about. That it's not, despite how it's sometimes portrayed, "Judaism Light." And, I have to admit, I like the metaphor I use towards the end:

Compare it, for a moment, to traffic laws. What if I told you that, in reality, the government had never passed, and doesn’t have the authority to pass, any traffic laws? How would this affect your driving? Would you drive like an irresponsible maniac, just because you’re now legally allowed to do so? Would you continue to obey every traffic law, just because they’re printed on nice signs? We’d all probably still agree that the idea of traffic laws still makes sense. But, knowing how to behave on the road becomes much more complex. Sure, you could decide to follow the posted signs, as if they were authoritative. But, what if you found yourself on an empty highway? Would you still obey the posted speed limit? Would you feel bad if you didn’t? What if someone else told you that they never obeyed speed limits? That they drove however they wanted, whenever and wherever they wanted. Can we now say that they are wrong? That, in some way, they are obligated to drive more responsibly? Speed limits still matter; traffic laws still matter. But, agreeing on that is one thing. Knowing what to do behind the wheel, and knowing that it’s the right way to drive, has gotten much more complex.

That’s the world that we inhabit as Reform Jews. We know that our tradition has value. We know that its laws can offer us meaning and guidance. But, we also know that the tradition, and its laws, are neither perfect nor absolute. And, we can’t pretend that they are. To do so would be a violation of our own God-given intellect. And, very importantly, it would also be pretending that something that isn’t divine, actually is divine. And that is, in a word, idolatry. Knowing that the old truths aren’t perfect, but pretending that they are, is nothing to be proud of. It’s not “true religion.” It’s sacrilege. Being willing to face the truth, even if that truth is complicated, and sometimes unsettling, is sacred. That’s the key to our right, even our obligation, as Reform Jews to not blindly follow Jewish law. To do so is not inconvenient. To do so is a religious lie.

At the core of Reform Judaism is a rejection of extremes. A refusal to say that Judaism, and Jewish law, are useless, but also a refusal to say that they're perfect, and divine. 

If you want to read the whole thing, you should be able to get it here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Elul and Heshbon HaNefesh

Our sages tell us that the month of Elul, the month which precedes Rosh Hashana, is meant as a preliminary time, during which we are supposed to prepare ourselves for the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days.


Why do we need preparation? Well, if all that we want to do is show up for services and (hopefully) enjoy them, then we probably don't need to prepare. At least, not very much. But, just showing up isn't the point of these holy days. The point of these holy days is to have a deeply meaningful experience which transforms us. The point is to emerge from this time as a better person than we were when we entered it.


That's not easy to do. It's easy to talk about, and it's easy to want to do, but those are different things. But, actually making changes in our lives, and ourselves, is difficult. It takes effort and concentration. It takes a willingness to seriously evaluate ourselves, and to be honest with ourselves about our faults and failings. It takes a willingness to look inward in a way which will make us uncomfortable.


One of my teachers once taught me that, in a synagogue, the first step to making a change is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo. That's not just true for institutions. That's true for us, too. The first step to making a change is to find those things which need to be changed, and convince yourselves that they really do need to be changed.


That's why the rabbis of old mandated that the month of Elul is a time of Cheshbon HaNefesh, literally translated as “an accounting of the soul.” We're supposed to spend time, every day, looking inward, and being honest with what we see. Thinking back over our deeds from this past year, and not glossing over the ones of which we've aren't so proud.


And, then the hard work really begins. Because everything we can think of that we've done, which we shouldn't have (and which our ancestors would have called “a sin”) we have to atone for. We have to find the person we've wronged. We have to apologize—an actual, specific apology, not a wishy-washy “I'm sorry if I hurt you.” And, if appropriate, we have to make restitution. Only then do we have any right to go to God and ask for forgiveness.


I'm not sure how many of us actually do this. I wonder how many people in our community really spend the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah regularly turning inward, identifying and remembering our failings, and especially going to the people we've hurt, and asking for forgiveness. But, imagine if we did. Imagine if Rosh Hashanah wasn't just another day with a long service, but was the culmination of months of serious, intense, often painful personal, spiritual work. Imagine how much more meaningful would be to stand before God, to stand with our community, if we had really done that.


I promise you—it won't be easy. An athlete, even a very good one, who wants to run a marathon doesn't show up on race day without having prepared, and then expect to win. Anything worth doing takes preparation, and that preparation is almost always hard.


But worth it.

Elul begins at sundown, August 30th. 




Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is religion good for?

Rabbi Larry Hoffman* is one of the leading thinkers in the synagogue-renewal world. He's probably done as much as anyone in recent history to get Jews (and members of other religions, as well) to think seriously about how their synagogues (and churches, etc.) function, and how they need to change. He recently wrote a piece on his blog which gives an excellent, brief overview of Liberal Religion, and does a wonderful job** of explaining why so many synagogues seem a bit lost, right now.

* he is probably one of the three rabbis whom I quote, and from who I unabashedly steal, most often. Take him, Rabbi Larry Kushner and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and you've got my rabbinic All-Star team!

** it's not a long piece, so if you're interested, it's definitely worth the click-through to read the whole thing. The comments on his page are pretty interesting, too!

To Hoffman, it all starts in the late 1700's with the then-revolutionary idea that Judaism is a religion. What, exactly, is a religion?

For Jews in Christian countries, religion was a system of belief that was operationalized in worship

That's actually a fantastic definition of "religion," which is one of those words that we all use, but would struggle to define. The problem is, since Judaism hadn't evolved as a “religion,” in that sense, it never really took. And so, our attempts to build synagogues which were essentially modeled on Protestant Churches were destined to fail (or, at least, not succeed fully). So, rather than close up shop (which institutions almost never do, voluntarily) we set about finding other reasons to continue to exist.

We tried relying on anti-Semitism as a reason to be. That was, ultimately, unfulfilling. We claimed to be a place which valued family like no other, which led in large part to most synagogues focusing on lifecycle events, and we expanded that idea, to say that our main purpose was “community,” which has its own failings:

The evidence, however, is against our being able to do this very well. Except for synagogue clergy, professionals, and the “regulars” (the self-selected “insiders” for whom synagogue really is community), most synagogues are not seen as communities that care, nurture, and provide whatever it is that beleaguered boomers want. At least life-cycle celebration is something we are good at. Community, apparently, is not. And the next generation, the boomers’ children may not even want it.

All in all, it's a pretty dim view of synagogues (and all the more painful because it rings so true). But, thankfully Hoffman isn't out just to depress us. Instead, he suggests there might be another purpose which synagogues can fulfill: spirituality.

You know, it's a funny thing. For a long time I've resisted the term “spiritual.” Partially, that's because it's so overused, and is often used in a very amorphous way—almost as if the point is to not talk seriously, and instead have a conversation in generalities and feel-good bromides. I've also resisted it because it came with certain connotations. A “spiritual person” was a particular type of person–ethereal, touchy-feely and so on. It might be an understatement to say that I have never been that type of person, and I've never really wanted to be (nothing wrong with those who are; it's just not me).

But, the reality is that, either through a process of aging and (God forbid) maturation, or maybe through the study I've done over the years, I've come to realize that spirituality really is one of the absolute primary components of a religious life. And (I'll fully admit—I'm proud to have had this realization before I read Rabbi Hoffman's piece) it might be exactly the one thing which synagogues can offer which few others can (notice—I didn't say no others can; I actually don't believe that this is the sole province of organized religion).

We don't need synagogues by default like we did half a century ago (we're fine if we never join or attend a synagogue). We don't need synagogues to provide our primary community, anymore (lots of places can do that, and as Hoffman suggests, studies suggest that the next generation might not care so much about “primary community” anymore). If we're going to survive (by "we" I mean synagogues, not Judaism more broadly) we have to be able to offer something vital, something powerful, and something not easily obtainable elsewhere. And that thing might be a serious, profound connection with some One greater than ourselves. Synagogues might have to start taking spirituality more seriously than we have in a long time (also worth nothing - this isn't a new insight; plenty of synagogues already are). We might have to start defining success by how many people's spiritual lives we can deepen.

This is all just a little bit of musing, to show you where my mind has been, of late. But it's also a bit of a preview of a new program we'll be starting after the High Holy Days. For those who are members of Congregation Beth Am, or just those who are in the Tampa Bay area, keep your eye out for a monthly Shabbat morning program called “Making Prayer Real,” based around the book by the same name. In brief, it's going to be an attempt to seriously examine our own prayer lives, and our own spiritual selves, in the hopes of making our prayers (both personal and communal) more intense, more powerful and more meaningful. It will be before services on the 2nd Saturday of each month, starting in the fall.

I doubt that we'll be seeing our current synagogue structures replaced by the Jewish equivalent to ashrams, anytime soon. At least, not in large numbers. But, I'm excited, as well as being a bit nervous, I'll admit, about seeing where this goes. And seeing what happens to us, and to me, if we really start putting our spirits at the center of our lives.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


We are still (thankfully) quite a ways away from the High Holy Days. These are, of course, the time of year when we are supposed to focus on repentance, and its counterpart, forgiveness. Although the “official” time for beginning our yearly process of heshbon hanefesh (literally, accounting of the soul—a deep, careful self-exploration, focusing on what we've done poorly, and where we need to improve as people) doesn't start until the end of August (when the Hebrew month of Elul begins), it's never too early to begin to think about this topic.

Recently, a congregant pointed me towards a blog, written by a lawyer who works primarily with victims of sexual abuse. He wrote a few entries about the question of apology and forgiveness. It's worth a read, if you have a minute.

His first entry is really about the inadequacy of most apologies. This is a favorite pet peeve of mine (and, of a lot of us, I imagine). “I'm sorry if I hurt you.” “I made a mistake.” They aren't really apologies—just pseudo-apologies, trying to dodge the hard work of truly begin the process of making amends:
A true apology and request for forgiveness starts with an unconditional acknowledgment– yes, even confession– of wrongdoing.  "I was, we were,  wrong. Our actions were selfish and wrong. There is no excuse. We are deeply sorry and offer our sincere and unconditional apology. We humbly ask your forgiveness."
His second entry is an example of a true apology. Given the topic (sexual abuse against children) it's devastating to read, but also deeply powerful. I won't pull a quote from it; it just needs to stand on its own.

Lastly, he moves the focus off of apologies, and on to forgiveness. He talks about the power of forgiveness, but it also puts into words something which I often struggle to express clearly. As important as forgiveness might be, and as focused as many religions are on forgiveness, it can't be mandated. It seems to me a bit nonsensical to tell someone how they should feel, and on some level, that's what we're doing if we tell someone, “you have to forgive.” But, maybe more importantly (or, perhaps, this is really a different aspect of the same idea) mandated forgiveness loses its power. Forgiveness—true, powerful forgiveness—has to come in its own time, in its own way:
once in a great while—and it is a mysterious and beautiful thing– I have seen wounded people become strong, become clear, become free in their healing and new power, and then choose to forgive those who have hurt them.  And what I then see in these people is a release, a new level of freedom from the toxic hold that the hurtful person once held over them.  “He/She has held me and my emotions captive long enough,” they say. “I’m done.  I release it, I release him.  I’m no longer willing to carry the burden of this anger, this hurt, this resentment.  I choose to forgive, and I am free.  I do not hate him; I do not wish him ill.  I want to be at peace, with myself, with him, with the universe.  Knowing I could choose not to do so, and that I would be justified in doing so, I nonetheless think it is best– for me –to choose to forgive.”  When these incredible people come to this place, as I have observed, they become some of the freest, most peaceful, powerful and loving people I have ever known.  

Given his career, he probably has a different insight into apologies and forgiveness than most of us do. It makes for some interesting reading.

Can we trust our sacred texts?

Some strange thoughts involving some new research about our moon, the opening chapters of the Torah, and the Talmud…

This morning, in our weekly Talmud class, we got into a brief side conversation about something which a couple of us heard on the radio earlier this morning. It seems that some scientists now believe that we used to have more than one moon. Our moon, as we know it now, was formed when some of these smaller moons combined with the “main moon.” Actually, that part isn't so new, but the way they combined (slowly and nondestructively, rather than explosively) is new.

Someone in the group mentioned, tongue firmly in cheek, that this was a problem for the Torah. After all, the book of Genesis talks about God creating the sun and the moon, but never talks about God making multiple moons!

I suppose that those who regularly dismiss scientific findings and prefer, instead, to rely on the Torah/Bible as the ultimate source of all types of truth, won't really have much trouble with this. If you can explain away dinosaur fossils, then this shouldn't be much of a problem at all. But, to those of us who don't accept the Torah as absolute, perfect, literal truth, this is just one more piece of evidence: as a scientific history, the Torah really isn't very good, at all.

During the same Talmud lesson, we came across a somewhat disturbing passage. The Talmud is discussing whether we are supposed to observe the formal rites of mourning for a slave of ours who passes away. Rabbi Eliezer (and, it must be said, that he was one of the great sages of antiquity) was adamantly against the idea, going so far as to even say that we should treat the death of a slave exactly as we would the death of an ox or donkey. It's disturbing enough that our ancestors—rabbis, no less—had slaves*, but this seemed, somehow, even further beyond the pale. To be so dismissive about a human life, to compare it to a pack animal, isn't exactly a shining example of humanity and morality. This in the Talmud—one of the most sacred, and arguably the most foundational book in all Judaism.

*actually, I don't have such great moral trouble with our ancestors having slaves. Not that slavery was a good thing, God forbid. But, understanding that, in the context of their day, slaves were an accepted reality and that, in a world which lacked any kind of social services, slavery was often a last resort for people trying to stay alive, I've come to understand that ancient slavery was often the lesser of some terrible evils. It's not fair to judge them too harshly based on our modern (and, I'd say, better) moral understanding of this issue. But, the often used (and, often by me) argument that ancient slavery was different from the chattel slavery with which we are most familiar, is definitely put to the test by Rabbi Eliezer's attitude.

Look—I don't think I have to defend my bona fides as a lover of our ancient, sacred texts. I believe that a serious study of our texts can be the basis of an unbelievably profound life, and it continues to be one of the sustaining parts of my own personal religious life. But, accepting our texts does not have to mean accepting them uncritically. We don't have to choose between the Torah (or the Talmud) and our minds. We don't have to decide to follow onlythe Torah, and never accept any of the lessons which thousands of years of history have taught us.

When it comes to science, the Torah (which may, or may not, have ever intended to include scientific facts) is completely out of date. If I were bold, I might even call it “useless,” from this one point of view. And, although it can be the beginning of a very serious conversation about morality, it clearly isn't the last word on that, either. neither is the Talmud. Neither is any single book.

If you're reading this, and you've heard me say this kind of thing before, I know. But I just don't understand how or why people will accept a book as perfect, when it is so obviously, manifestly not. Sacred—yes. Beautiful—yes. Perfect?

You know what? I was going to say that you don't need it to be perfect for it to be meaningful. But, the truth is, that doesn't go far enough. It's more meaningful, and more perfect, when you can see all of its flaws.