Friday, December 28, 2012

Reacting to Tragedy

It's become a commonplace, almost a cliché, that we have an incredibly short attention span for even the most important stories in our world. But, as hard as it may be to believe, we seem to have almost moved on, as a society, from the tragedy in Newtown, which took place just two weeks ago. The conversation about gun control, and to a lesser degree mental illnesses, rages on (thankfully), but it seems to me that the conversation about the tragedy itself has mostly waned. Maybe that's just because there isn't much left to say — how many times can we shake our heads and say, "there are no words"? Maybe it's because we have a need to protect ourselves, and dwelling on this tragedy is just too hard.

This morning, I read an article by Anthony Pinn, talking about the theological and humanist responses to Newtown. "Humanist" is a word that gets used very differently in different contexts, but here I think he's using it in the basic sense of "human centered." As in, let’s talk about this tragedy not in terms of God and "why God would let this happen," or, "what God can do for us now," but rather talk about the human side — what have we, as a society, done to enable this kind of tragedy? What should we, as human beings, be doing in response? How can we properly mourn, and how can we act to make a better world?

Why? Well, it's a pretty deep article, especially considering how short it is (so, you really should read it). But, in part it's because he believes that attempting to bring God into the conversation actually exposes weaknesses of theology: 
At best we might suggest that God “dropped the ball”—failed to do what a loving God is supposed to do. Instead, it seems to me, as we read the stories of the victims we are also reading God’s obituary. By this I mean that such extreme human tragedy makes it impossible to talk about God in any useful way.
 Don’t read this statement as a selfish demand for comfort, for an easy life. No, it’s recognition that nothing explains away the destruction of life’s integrity; but instead it highlights the fact that we labor in this world without cosmic aid that can protect us from us. Appeals to free will (as my comments are bound to generate) might not be a limitation God imposes on God’s self. It may simply be a weak way of saying we are in control, or what the late William R. Jones—philosopher of religion—called the “functional ultimacy” of human activity in the world. 
I like that phrase, "functional ultimacy of human activity in the world." Whatever you want to believe about God — God could prevent such tragedies, but chooses not to; God can't prevent such tragedies — the fact remains that God doesn't prevent such tragedies. At least within this limited scope, the world behaves as if there isn't a God. We, human beings, are the ultimate actors.

[Those of you who know my own theology know that this doesn’t drive me away from God, but it does drive me away from classical,dualist images of God]

He also believes that theological justifications do nothing to ease the pain of those who are suffering: 
I write this not to deny comfort for those who have been directly and indirectly touched by this unspeakable act of violence. Mine is an effort to acknowledge and respect grief without so quickly pushing to find some reason behind such tragedy. This loss of life is really beyond our limited human language. The loss experienced by those families, by those associated with the school, and by the collective American and human family is so intense, so absurd, so real that it calls for our full humanity beyond any talk of God. 
That actually matches up, incredible closely, with my own experience. I'm sure that there are people who react differently, but when I've encountered people who have suffered a tragedy, the question of, "Why did God let this happen?" usually comes up. And, they almost invariably find comfort when I use the message of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who said (in my hopelessly inadequate summary) that that's the wrong question to ask. But not because, in the popular phrasing, "we can't understand God's plans." No, Soloveitchik says, don't say that God has plans, and that this tragedy was a part of those plans. Because, what that really says is that this tragedy wasn't a tragedy at all — it was good.

Saying, "it was all part of God's plans," pretends that we are children suffering through, say, the pain of surgery. For us, there is only pain. But, our benevolent, omnipotent Parent knows that this temporary pain serves a greater good. And so it is, itself, good. We may think that the surgery is bad; they know better.

No, Soloveitchik says, this pain, and this tragedy, were not good. And, there's no good reason to pretend otherwise. Denying that awful things are awful, and evil things are evil, is not sophisticated, intellectually or morally. It is vapid. It is lost. Our ability to know the difference between good and bad, between good and evil, is the one thing which makes us fundamentally different from other animals (that's the real lesson of the Garden of Eden story). Quashing that knowledge isn't high-minded. It's a flight from reality, and from our own essence.

Pinn and Soloveitchik, a humanist and a devout theist, agree on what the proper question actually is: What do we do now? 
Those who struggled to protect, to safeguard, those young lives—and those who lost their lives to the insanity of murder are more important than any appeal to God. We humans alone must remember them, keep the beauty and value of their short lives ever present through our memorials, through our reflexive words, but also through our resolve to determine and then change the patterns of socio-political and economic life that contribute to collective misery. Think gun control as impulse control, and as a reasonable effort to preserve the integrity of life by making it a little more difficult to destroy it.
 I’m not taking anything away from those grieving, but rather I am calling for greater attention to the framing of life, to the regulations, and dangers embedded in our social relationships that undergird our loss. How many guns are necessary to prove we live in a democracy? How many must die before we recognize collective life requires constraint, a humility and discipline that our pleas to a special relationship with God often damage. 

I've gone in a bit of a circle, here. I started off by talking about how we stopped talking about the tragedy, itself, and only talk now about our longer-term reactions to it. And then, I shared overlapping humanistic and theological responses which, in essence, say that the proper thing to do is to focus on longer-term reactions. Maybe there's a deeper meaning to that, or maybe I'm just having trouble making sense of my thoughts this morning. Maybe, like I said, everyone's still thinking about Newtown, but has nothing left to say, so we are trying to do something productive with our pain. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do, too. 
Sometimes it is in silence that we are best able to eulogize our collective loss, and to mourn our lack of power over the circumstances that lead to such destruction.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I hate organ music.

Well, I don't mind it so much at sporting events. But, generally speaking, I'm not really a fan of the sound of an organ. And, when it comes to praying in a synagogue, I'm really not a fan. I feel more or less the same way about it than I do about choirs — besides a simple aesthetic preference (we like what we like, and there's not too much to do about that), I'm a big fan of participatory prayer (in fact, I'd argue that "participatory prayer" is probably a redundancy), and the kind of "High Church" music that is usually being played on an organ (and sung by a choir) is among the least participatory types of prayer that we can find in Judaism. In other words, organs don't generally lend themselves to the type of prayer which I prefer.

A lot of people who don't appreciate organ music and synagogue complain that it reminds them of church. I grew up with an organ being used in synagogue, so it doesn't seem that foreign to me. But, I certainly understand the association, and why it makes some people uncomfortable*. But, that nearly universally accepted association might be ironically erroneous**.

Not that there's anything wrong with church. It's just that most Jews want synagogue to "feel Jewish," rather than feeling like a church.

** Try saying that 10 times fast…

Benjamin Ivy suggests that, actually, organs are a well-established musical instrument in Judaism. In fact, for a long time churches forbade the use of organs, because it was so strongly associated with Judaism, and Jewish worship!

...musicologist Tina Frühauf, notes that “until the Middle Ages, the organ was not officially permitted in any Christian liturgy inasmuch as instrumental music was associated… with the Jewish services once held in the temple at Jerusalem.”
I'm not saying that this makes me want to start using an organ in synagogue. I still don't like it (personal preference), and I still don't think it invites participatory prayer (rabbinic preference). But, it's a good reminder that almost any time someone says, "that's not Jewish" or some such, what they really mean is, "that doesn't feel like the Judaism with which I'm familiar." There's nothing wrong with having our preferences, or with having those preferences grounded in what we find familiar. But, let's not make the mistake of elevating those preferences to objective fact.

You know, "let's not make the mistake of elevating those preferences to objective fact" might be a rabbinic motto of mine. I sure do wish a lot of other religious people felt similarly. But, I guess that's for another day…

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Miracle of Hope

[This is a version of the sermon I gave on Friday night]

Last week, Rabbi Richard Birnholz had a column in the Jewish Press. In it, he juxtaposed and compared two ancient, Jewish stories: the Chanukah story and Masada. I had never seen these two stories linked before, but doing so was interesting, and revealing. First, a quick review of the stories. We’ll start with Hanukkah, since it came first.

The full story is actually quite complicated and interesting, but here’s an incredibly simplified version that will suffice for now: our people were being oppressed by the Syrian-Greek empire. Led by King Antiochus, they were imposing a foreign form of religion on our people (which is something that we’ve never appreciated, to say the least). A rebellion started, led by Judah the Maccabee (“the Hammer”). It was, to say the least, a ridiculously audacious act. There was almost no chance of success — what hope was there for a small band of under-armed, untrained Jews against the mighty Imperial Army? But, of course, they were successful — they drove the Greeks out, reclaimed and rededicated the Temple, and established Jewish sovereignty in the land. It was, quite literally in their eyes, a miraculous victory.

Masada is a very different story. This time, it was the Roman empire which was oppressing us. Towards the end of their brutal suppression of our rebellion, a group of fanatics took over the fortress at Masada. It was a impregnable palace built years before by King Herod. Up there, well supplied, they were able to survive three years of siege by the Roman legions. But, it eventually became clear that there was no hope — they were going to fall to the Romans, soon. Death would be the best that they could hope for, probably. More likely, torture, slavery and God knows what else were in store for them. So, they made a desperate decision, and committed mass suicide, rather than be taken by the Romans.

Rabbi Birnholz compared these two stories as a way to talk about how difficult it is to know when to fight, and when not to fight. How, looking in our past, we find examples of both. It’s impossible to say that “Jews always fight back” or “Jews never fight back.” It’s more nuanced, and more complicated, than that. He was talking about it particularly vis-à-vis Israel and its current dilemmas, but it applies more widely, of course.

But, the juxtaposition got me thinking about another valuable insight from this comparison: one is a story about hope, while the other is a story about giving up hope.

Masada is, at the simplest level, the story of a people who had no more hope. I want to make it clear — I’m not judging them for this. I’m not going to stand here, 2000 years later, in the comfort of my own synagogue, and say that they didn’t the wrong thing, or the right thing. That’s a discussion for another time. What I’m saying is that, clearly, this was the act of the people who felt that there was no possibility of any kind of victory, save for this one — the victory of denying the Romans the victory that they wanted.

For many years, Masada was an important symbol in Israel — members of the Army were sworn in there, and declared “Masada shall never fall again.” That sentiment is still alive in Israel, but they’ve become more reluctant to use Masada as a symbol. Again, without judging the actions of those people, there’s been a growing discomfort with using this terrible, desperate situation as a symbol. Is this what we want to evoke and remember at some of our most powerful, sacred moments?

Compare that to the story of Chanukah. This is a story of a people who had every reason not to hope. But, in spite of that, they never lost faith, and they never stopped hoping. The war itself was an act of audacious hope. There really was no way anyone could have expected them to win. By all rights, it should have been a minor rebellion, completely unnoticed by the larger empire, and lost to history. But, it wasn’t. It was one of the most improbable victories you’ll ever read about.

Chanukah is about a lot of things — the balance between religious fundamentalism and acculturation, for example. But, at its core, Chanukah is about hope in the face of hopelessness. That might be one of the great lessons in all Judaism: the fundamental, absolute necessity for hope, no matter what. The constant, ever-present possibility of miracles, so long as we believe that they might still happen.

We’ll never know what would have happened to those poor souls on top of Masada if they had decided to surrender, or fight back. We do, however, have a pretty good idea of what would have happened if the Hasmoneans hadn’t fought back. There would have been no victory, no Temple restored. It could have been the end of the Jewish people, and even if we had survived, we certainly would not have our annual celebration of their great victory and so, tragically, there would be no excuse to eat fried latkes and doughnuts all week! The Maccabean victory relied on quite a few factors, but it began with hope. Without hope, nothing is possible.

I may have finally come to realize the true meaning of a famous rabbinic aphorism. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlov once said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to be afraid.” There are always good and valid reasons to be afraid. To lose hope. We live in a world which, sometimes seemingly constantly, gives us ample reason to fear and doubt. We can pick up the papers and read about war, famine, looming financial crises, potential environmental catastrophes, superbugs and drug-resistant diseases, and more. We can look around our own lives and see people who have lost loved ones, lost their livelihoods, lost everything. We can look anywhere we want to and, without a bit of melodrama or paranoia, find lots of reasons to be afraid, to be absolutely, unequivocally sure, that there is no hope.

But, there’s one thing I can tell you for sure. If you let that fear overtake you, then there is no hope. You’ve already lost. The only way to live is to acknowledge the chasm — acknowledge the very real pitfalls and the dangers — and then take a step forward, anyway. We don’t pretend that the dangers aren’t there; we just choose to move ahead, in spite of them. Miraculously, we rarely fall.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the godfather of what we now call Modern Orthodox Judaism, noticed that the first born Jew, Yitzhak, was named after laughter. His parents, Abraham and Sarah, had grown so old that when God tells Sarah she’s going to have a baby, she laughs. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, at her age (and, frankly, she’s more concerned with Abraham’s age than hers!). So, when she eventually has a baby, she names him after that laughter. That’s because, Hirsch teaches, from our first moments, our people’s history has been so ridiculous as to be laughable. Our patriarch and matriarch didn’t have a child until they had reached a ridiculous high age. The idea that we could survive 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering the desert, conquer a hostile land, establish a kingdom — it’s laughable. Survive 2000 years of exile and dispersion — and not just survive, but thrive? Laughable. Revive a dead language? Drain the swamps, make the desert bloom and create a modern state out of almost nothing? Survive the death camps and outlive Hitler? Become one of the great military powers of the world at the same time that those who remain outside of Israel become a thriving, vibrant people? Ridiculous, and utterly hopeless.

That’s who we are — we are the people who regularly do that which is so impossible as to be laughable. We are the people who never lose hope, no matter what.

The Maharal of Prague has a beautiful teaching about Chanukah. Why, he asks, do we talk about an eight day miracle? When the Hasmoneans entered the temple, they found enough oil for one day, but it lasted eight. We all know the story. But, that’s only a seven-day miracle — that first day wasn’t a miracle, at all. It was just lighting a light. That’s true, the Maharal says. But, before we could get to that seven-day miracle, we needed another miracle, first. You see, there was no reason to think that lighting the light was a good idea. They knew there was only enough oil for one day. Lighting the menorah and letting it go out, would have been a major religious violation. Logic would have dictated that they simply wait another week, until there was sufficient oil.

But, they were unwilling to wait. They were unwilling to delay rekindling the menorah, and their sense of holiness, for one more moment. And, despite having no reason to think that it would work out well, they trusted that it would. They acted on hope, even when the world gave them little reason for it. On days two through seven of Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of the burning. But, on the first day, we celebrate the miracle of the lighting.

On the first day, we celebrate the miracle of hope.

These Lights Are Holy — And Nothing Else

Tonight is the 4th night of Chanukah. When we light our candles tonight, will say the two blessings, and then all recite a short paragraph, "HaNeirot Hallelu." it reads:
We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah, these lights are holy, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them; In order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders, and your salvations. 
It's kind of nice to have this little piece which describes the reasons for the ritual we just did — sometimes I wish that every ritual came with an explanation! But, there's one sentence in here which I love more than the rest*. "These lights are holy, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them."

* I can't remember for sure, but I'm fairly certain that this insight came from either Dr. Larry Hoffman or Dr. Joel Hoffman. Most of my good ideas are pilfered from one of them, anyway…

The lights of the Chanukah menorah have one purpose, and one purpose only. They are there to "proclaim the miracle." They are there to advertise God's greatness, and our gratitude for it. That's it – that's their complete and sole purpose in life.

By the way – that's the real reason for the shamash (the helper candle). It's not there, primarily, too light the other candles (not too long ago, all menorahs were oil lamps; it would be pretty hard to use one oil lamp to light the rest, the way we use a candle, now!). Is there to provide light for use. You see, it's forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any practical purpose. But, it's always possible that we'll accidentally use it — that, for example, we'll read a book nearby, and inadvertently use the menorah as a source of light. So, we light one extra light so that we can claim (who doesn't love a legal fiction?) that we weren't using the holy lights, rather this extra, ordinary light, instead.

Or, another to frame that is that the shamash is there to guarantee (and I'd add, to remind us) that the Chanukah lights cannot serve any purpose, other than their primary one – holiness.

I love this simple idea that we have something in our homes, even temporarily, which serves no practical purpose. It is there only, and adamantly only, to remind us of holiness. To proclaim God's presence. To remind us to, in Heschel's words*, stand still and consider.

* both Hoffmans and Heschel in one blog post! I think I get bonus points for that! Let's see if I can squeeze Kushner and/or Green in here, just to round things out…

I think it's an incredibly important, and powerful, idea. All of us should have something in life which is there to remind us of that which is greater than ourselves. Of that which is holy. If you aren't a religious person, then it doesn't have to be a classically religious symbol, like a menorah. But, find something in the world which you can set aside as a touchstone of holiness. Something which serves no purpose other than to remind you that there is holiness in the world. That holiness is always present, even if we sometimes forget to look for it.

These lights are holy. They are nothing else. Thank God!