Friday, March 23, 2012

Some love for Leviticus

This (hopefully brief) post is intended mainly for my rabbinic friends/colleagues, but I suppose that anyone might find interesting…

Many of you were with me at the CCAR conference, this past week. During that time, several teachers (many of whom are wildly more knowledgeable and more intelligent than I am, it has to be said) tripped over one of my pet peeves: they began talking about the book of Leviticus by insulting the book of Leviticus! They would, usually quickly, say something like, “Well, what could be better than teaching about this book, huh?” It drives me crazy, frankly.

First of all, and less importantly, it's just bad form, and possibly bad business, for a rabbi to insult the Torah.

But, that's not my main problem. My main problem is this: Leviticus is awesome. Or, maybe, Awesome. I'm not claiming that every verse is filled with deep meaning. But, there is so much in this book to explore and to learn from: the absolute centrality of sacrifice in religious life (even if our sacrifices are less literal than our ancestors were); the importance of “bringing our best;” trying to figure out why our ancestors believed that blood was life, and thus challenging ourselves to understand what we think life really is.

And, even if you don't find meaning in those themes, we have thousands of years of rabbis finding hidden meaning (even if, quite often, they were stretching the text pretty far, as rabbis are want to do) in this text. What's the “secret meaning” of the small alef in the first word of the book? Why does God only speak from one location from here on out? And, so much more.

Whenever someone begins their talk with, “The book of Leviticus is so hard for us to relate to,” they're undercutting themselves. Here's what they're really saying: “This book stinks. There's nothing in it worth knowing. But, if you squint, and if you let me pretend, I'll make up some meaning for you to find.”

Look, if you really think that the book of Leviticus is void of meaning for us, as moderns, then skip it. Talk about Passover, or Israel, or baseball for a couple of months, if you prefer. But don't trash the book, and then try and tell me what it “really” means. And, if you don't think that the book is void of meaning, then just tell me what it means.

Traditionally, this book is the first book which children learn when they begin to study the Torah. The midrash says that this is because children are pure, and the sacrifices were pure, too. I'm pretty sure there's something for us to learn there, and I can't wait to get to it.

Shabbat shalom!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Religion or Spirituality

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Past-President of the URJ, recently had another post up on HuffPost, responding to a well-viewed YouTube video about being spiritual, not religious. And, not surprisingly, Rabbi Yoffie isn't a fan.

I hate spirituality, at least as it has come to be used in these contexts. Spirituality is a weasel word, impossible to define or pin down. It can, and does, refer to pretty much anything. The only thing that it seems to mean with certainty is the absence of the disciplined, regular, organized spiritual seeking that is so essential to religious belief and moral behavior.

More than just complaining about the word "Spirituality," Yoffie also expresses a defense of Organized Religion:*

* Although, as I've often said, if you don't like Organized Religion, then you should come to our congregation - you'll love us!

And we need that. I need that. Because as much as I may thirst for the holy and yearn for God, I know that there will be times when I will be tired, distracted or lacking in inspiration; and when that happens, I will simply be incapable of heartfelt prayer or moral uplift. I know that spirituality is a matter of moods; sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not, and therefore it is never enough. I know that the "behavior modification" that Bethke dismisses is precisely what I -- and most of humankind -- must have to do.

As Yoffie says, and almost everyone will agree, organized religions can, and often do, lose their way. They get, in his word, ossified, and they become hypocritical and, at worst, destructive. No doubt about that. But, that doesn't mean that organized religion has to be that way. At it's best, it can be a source of serious spiritual engagement, challenge, uplift, morality and more. And, by its nature, it can be (again, at its best) a more regular, stabilizing force than an undefined "spirituality."

Being spiritual without being religious doesn't make you a bad person, in any way. But, then again, neither does being spiritual and religious.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An Ode to Sincerity

It's possible that, from time to time, I engage in snarkiness or sarcasm. It's possible that I read snarky blogs, watch The Daily Show and do a lot more which induldges my need for snark and sarcasm. I'm not going to stand here and tell you that I'm going to stop, or that I want to stop.

But, my favorite writer, Joe Posnanski, has a post up about the glory of sincerity - about being not snarky in a snarky world. And, you know what? He's right. And, he's brilliant. 

I'm not going to pull any quotes, because it's so darn good. Olive Garden, Disney World and watching the world from an airplane window. Little joys in life, which we don't have to smirk at.

OK. 1 (long) quote:

There's so much good, funny, smart writing available on the Internet these days that it's easy to miss that there's a certain kind of writing that isn't much available: And that's VULNERABLE writing. Could you imagine how much different "Catcher In The Rye" might have been if readers were allowed to write their immediate comments below it?

PsychoBrat: "Hey, Holden quit WHINING!!!!!"

StevieStevie: "Rye sanwichh. Mmmm."

TerribleTim: "Stooooooooooooopid."

MarjorieM: "You guys totally missed the point. This was about the confusion of youth and the desire to find something real and authentic in a world changing too rapidly …"

BaseDuen2847: "Shut up Marjoarie. Maybe YOU missed the point."

StevieStevie: "Rye sanldwiche. Mmmmm. Mmmm."

Who wants to expose their hearts on the Internet? Who wants to admit -- except in some deeply ironic way -- that they really and truly like something? Who wants to lay bare their enthusiasm, open it up to the boots of cynics and skeptics and snarkers? Much better to start a "Fire Rex Ryan" Web site … or poke fun at Yuni Betancourt.

Good stuff, man. Good stuff.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim - an antidote to idolatry

It won't come as a surprise to most of you that I love Purim. It's my once a year opportunity to act really, really silly, while still “acting like a rabbi.” For those who don't know, Purim is a holiday on which we dress up in costume (under Jewish law, it's the one time a year when we're allowed to dress like a member of the opposite sex), get a little drunk (officially, we're supposed to get more than a little drunk, but that's a story for another time), and generally behave as ridiculously as we can.
One of my favorite Purim traditions is the mock service—and by “mock” I mean that we mock the service itself. We do goofy versions of our prayers. We sing them to random tunes (“Adon Olam” to “Stairway to Heaven” anyone?). It's a complete sendup of our (usually) sacred service. I know that some people are uncomfortable with this part of Purim. It feels “over the line,” somehow. But, besides being a whole lot of fun*, I think it's also a religiously essential act, because it's a kind of anti-idolatry. Let me explain…**
* I've led services dressed as Jesus and a gorilla (not at the same time). I'm pretty sure that if I had known of the idea of a “bucket list” back then, both of those would have been on it.
** no. There is too much. Let me sum up…
Worship is a sacred act—that should be pretty obvious. It's our attempt to reach out beyond ourselves and connect with the Most High. Prayer is one of the pillars of Judaism, and one of the most important, absolutely essential things that we do as Jews. I could spend a lot of time talking just about how important prayer is, and why, but I'm pretty sure that it goes mostly without saying.
But, at the same time, it's possible to take our prayers too seriously. It's possible—easy, really—to forget that our prayers are a tool that we use in an attempt to reach holiness. They are not holiness themselves. It's possible, in short, to make an idol out of our prayers.
Let me give you an example. One year, I did a silly version of the Barechu (actually, I usually do that…). Officially, that's the “call to worship,” so I did it as a cell phone call. I had God call me, while I was on the bimah, and tell me that it was time to start praying.
Afterwards, a rabbi I know (and who, it must be said, I love and respect greatly) chastised me about it*. He told me that he thought that the service was inappropriate. And, the example he used was that Barechu. I remember him saying something like, “you made a mockery of the Barechu, of all things!”
* If he had chastised me because the joke was lame, then maybe I would have agreed. A cell phone call to worship? I did that my first year of Rabbinical school, for cryin' out loud!
I remember thinking, “the Barechu? Really? That's what offended you?” The Barechu isn't even a prayer, technically. Like I said—it's a call to worship. It's the starter's pistol—the moment in which the prayer leader tells us all that the warm-ups are over, and it's time to begin the “main” prayer. Sure, it mentions God—just about everything in the service mentions God, naturally. But, liturgically speaking, it's just not a major prayer, if it's a prayer at all. To hold it up like it's some sacred, untouchable icon just seems disproportionate. Inappropriate, even. It's giving it a status that it may not really deserve. And, when that status is "holiness," then we've ventured into idolatry which is, at its core, treating something that isn't sacred as if it were.
Like I said, praying is one of our most sacred and important acts. But, at the same time, our prayers are just prayers—just words. They are, as I often say (quoting some long forgotten source) the barely coherent mumblings of a bunch of pretentious, hairless apes. Really, who cares if we mock them? What harm does it do? Do we think that God will be offended? Will the prayers' feelings be hurt, or will they be less effective tomorrow because of this?
As Bruce Lee once said (in the first scene of "Enter the Dragon") "It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!" Our prayers are a finger pointing at the moon. If we focus on them, we miss all of that heavenly glory!
Most of the time, treating our prayers like they are sacred is an important part of praying - we treat them as sacred, so they become sacred, and they can lead us to the sacred. But, it's so easy to start thinking that the prayers are the thing, and to forget that they are just pointing us, instead.
So, once a year, we remind ourselves. We treat our prayers not like sacred rites, but like ridiculous ramblings. We mock ourselves, and we mock what we do in synagogue. We remind ourselves that our prayers are, in fact, just prayers.
Then, tomorrow, we go back to looking for the moon.