Saturday, March 30, 2013

My Shortest Lesson Ever

The shortest lesson I've ever taught about Shabbat:

I have an idea for a post, and I was about to sit down and write it.

But, it's warm and sunny outside. So, I'm going to go for a bike ride with my son, instead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How To Read Your Bible

It happens a lot, but it happens especially at times when we're debating some serious, divisive issue - an issue about which religion has something to say. So, to take the obvious example, it happens when we're discussing Same-Sex Marriage, as we are lately, with Prop 8 and DOMA going before the Supreme Court. 

It happens, unfortunately, very often in the comments section of some website*. Someone brings up how the Bible says something, usually in opposition to some liberal standpoint. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about - I say that I support Same-Sex Marriage, and then someone points out that, in case you haven't read it, Leviticus seems to oppose my position**.

* I say "unfortunately" because, in my opinion, there are few places better than the comments section of many websites to get really frustrated, and to wonder if we're making any progress as a society, or as a species. That isn't a statement so much about the content of many of these comments, but the tone and intelligence. But, that's another rant, I guess.

** I say "seems" because, if you actually study the Hebrew, Leviticus isn't quite as unambiguously anti-gay as it seems. But, that's another rant, I guess.

Now, the back-and-forth begins. Maybe I point out other areas of the Bible which we don't all follow. Maybe I point out the human origins of the Bible. Maybe I describe some overarching principle which I use to find my way through the Bible - maybe I even quote some great figure who said that "Love Your Neighbor as yourself" is the greatest principle of all.

Then it happens. 

Someone says, "You can't pick and choose. You can't treat the Bible like a Chinese menu, picking one law from column A, and two teachings from column B. It's all God's word, and it's sinful and idolatrous to think that you can use your own judgment over God's."

From there, it gets fairly predictable. Someone will (re-)state that overarching principle, claiming that that's God's will, or some higher truth (which, religiously speaking, are the same things). Someone will (again?) point out that we all pick and choose. And, we go 'round and 'round.

But, I feel like one part of this always gets missed. For lack of a better word, the philosophy which underlies the whole liberal approach to text and religion.

You say that it's wrong, sinfully wrong, to use my own judgment to decide between what's right and wrong in the Bible.

I ask you what better idea you've got?

I don't mean to imply that I'm better than God. That my judgment is perfect. That I am the ultimate, final arbiter of all that is Right or Wrong. That I trust myself to make these judgments, and to never make a mistake.

I just mean to state that I don't know a better alternative.

The Bible is not perfect. It isn't. Some people reading this will have a different opinion about that, and we probably can't have a meaningful, productive conversation, because our starting assumptions, our paradigms of belief, if you will, are fundamentally different. If you believe that the Torah, or your scripture, comes down, perfectly, directly from God, despite all of the countervailing evidence, then you're going to believe that, and my pointing out that the Torah claims that the rabbit chews its cud* probably won't convince you. 

* it doesn't

But, if like me, you come from a tradition which accepts, and even embraces, the human origins of our most sacred texts, then you are left with a pretty clear choice. You can either pretend that the Torah, and/or the rest of the Bible, is perfect, and try your best to follow it devotedly. 

Or, you can openly admit that it's not perfect, and try to find a different way to follow it.

This different way - and there are many - is going to be flawed. It's going to be ambiguous and vague. It's often going to be inconsistent and (horror of horrors!) even hypocritical. 

But, it's going to be honest.

Pretending that the Bible is perfect - is divine - even if we know it's not? That, my friends, is idolatrous.

Admitting that the Bible is often a source of great, holy inspiration, but is often also the source of misguided, and/or outdated views? That's troubling, and confusing, and fraught. But, it's true. It's honest. Personally speaking, I am (literally) religiously devoted to choosing honest complexity over simplistic consistency. 

Of course being the arbiter of what I do and don't believe, of which parts of the Bible I do and don't follow is tricky. Of course I'm going to contradict myself - I'm going to claim to believe something which seems to, or actually does, go against something I claimed to believe yesterday. Of course I'm going to apply my principles inconsistently - how else am I going to figure out how to apply them at all? I'm learning as I go. I'm thinking, and reading, and talking, and listening. I'm making judgments, and checking them against my other judgments, and against other people's ideas, and against the reality which is being created as I watch. I'm finding my way through a complex, ambiguous, ever-changing world. It seems only logical, only honest, that my way will also be complex, ambiguous and ever-changing.

If someone tells you they have simple answers to complex questions, be very, very suspicious.

Absolute certainty may seem strong and faithful and appealing.

But, I'll take ambiguous complexity. It may not be perfect. But, it's the closest thing we've got.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pesach and Freedom for All

This is really just a longer version of the status which I just posted on Facebook. In theory, if I can say something in a short status, then there's no reason to say it in a full blog post. But, brevity has never been the main requirement of the rabbinate...

I'm incredibly moved by the number of people who, this morning, have changed their Facebook profile picture to the Marriage Equality logo*. Over the next two days, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about Prop 8 and DOMA, and there seems to be a real (if not particularly overwhelming  shot that, in the coming days (week? months?), Marriage Equality will be the Law of the Land, and people will be allowed to marry whomever the want, even if (gasp!) they happen to be the same sex.

* Of course, I acknowledge that my Facebook friends list isn't exactly a scientifically representative sample of the population. It may lean, on average, to the left. Slightly.

Many have noted that Pesach is the perfect time for this to be happening. Pesach (Passover) is the Festival of Freedom - our annual retelling (reliving, actually) of our Exodus from the slavery of Egypt. In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim, which comes from the Hebrew for "narrow." Egypt is, literally, "The Narrow Place." Originally, that was probably geographic - Ancient Egypt existed almost entirely along the Nile, so the kingdom was very narrow, physically. But, our sages* read it metaphorically - Mitzrayim is whatever constricts you. Whatever hems you in. Whatever keeps you from being fully, fundamentally free. From being you were meant to be. From being fully yourself. In other words, Egypt and Freedom aren't only historical and physical, they are also personal and spiritual.

Who, let the record show, never let a simple explanation get in the way of a longer one...

Pesach doesn't just celebrate that one slavery, and our freedom from it. Pesach uses that one story as a paradigm to talk about every slavery, and every freedom. And so, Pesach really is the perfect day to be talking about (among a billion other things) Marriage Equality. Because, someone (a government, a religious group, a mob) telling you that your love isn't equal, that your marriage doesn't count, that your family isn't real? That must feel an awful lot like Mitzrayim.

And, that brings me to one of my absolute favorite, core teachings of Passover, and of all of Judaism. Several times, the Torah tells us that we must be kind to the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. We must, we are taught, fight for all who are enslaved, because we were slaves, once.

That's why we retell the Passover story, every year. That's why we're supposed to find new and creative ways to retell it, to make it feel real. Because, when we do that, when we can actually convince ourselves that, in some way, we were slaves, we'll actually remember what that felt like. We won't just talk about slavery, but we'll remember slavery. We'll feel the pain.

And, we'll be sure - absolutely, passionately sure - that no one - no one - should ever feel that way again.

We retell our story of slavery not to engage in some multi-generational pity-party, or to lay claim to some historical recompense. We do so in order to motivate ourselves to fight for others who are not free.

Time and again, the world (or, the be fair, some narrow minded segment of the world) has told some of us that we aren't equal. Jews had to be slaves. Africans had to be slaves. Their descendants were told that they were less intelligent, less capable, not worthy of mixing their blood with ours. And so on. We hear those stories, and we shake our heads in disbelief. We look back on our ancestors (and ourselves) with shame.

Except with gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. We're perfectly happy to tell them that they aren't the same. That they aren't equal. That they have to stay in Mitzrayim.

Tonight, many of us will attend a 2nd seder. We will, once again, retell the story of our slavery, and our freedom. During the seder (or just at dinner, if you're not going to a seder) stop and imagine that someone looked at you, and your family, and call you all sinners. Called you all evil. Called you all illegitimate. Not real. Imagine that your government did that, every day.

Imagine how that would feel.

Remember how it felt.

Don't let it continue. Not one more damn day.

Freedom to marry. Now.

Now, we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Enough, And More

One of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorite teachings comes out of this week's Torah portion*. In Parashat Vaykhel, we continue to receive instructions about the building of the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary in the desert. And then, after hearing what was needed to build this holy structure, the people begin offering gifts — donating whatever they had towards the construction. It was Judaism's first Building Fund.

* I learned it, as I learned so much, from Rabbi Larry Kushner. He learned it from his student, Daniel Lehrman.

But, this one goes differently from most. Because, the people actually bring too much – it gets to the point were Moses has to make a proclamation, demanding that people stop bringing gifts*. That episode ends (Exodus 36:7) with the comment, "their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done."

* It's enough to bring tears to the eyes of synagogue presidents everywhere…

But, that's not exactly what it says. The Hebrew, if read literally (over-literally, really), actually reads, "their efforts have been enough, and more…" A teacher by the nickname Sihot Tsaddadkim  notices a problem with this phrase, "enough, and more." Which was it? Did they bring enough, or did they bring more? The Torah (so rabbinic thinking goes) is always precise, saying exactly what it means, never wasting a word, or even a letter. So, this can't be mere idiom — but, how else can we understand it?

His answer? They only had enough because they had more than enough.

Imagine for a moment that they collected precisely enough for the building. Take away one gold coin, 1 yard of fabric, one dolphin skin,*  and they wouldn't have enough. The project couldn't be completed. That would mean that each and every person who donated could look at the final tabernacle and say, "It couldn't have been done without me." It would have been a recipe for arrogance, self-importance and ego gratification.

* don't ask...

And then it wouldn't be a holy building.

True holiness demands (among other things) a minimization of ego, and a smallness of self. An understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, we ain't all that impressive. Or, to put it a bit differently, we're only going to be able to worship one thing in this Tabernacle. And, we want to make sure that we're worshiping God, not ourselves.

Each person who contributed to this sacred project knew that they were important, but also knew that they weren't essential. That the project could have been done without them. Therefore, when they entered the Tabernacle, they couldn't possibly think of themselves as essential. They were forced to be, in a word, humble. Then, and only then, would they have any hope, any prayer, of approaching God.  Arrogance and holiness are mutually contradictory. We really do have to choose — are we going to worship ourselves, or we going to worship God?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reading Torah

Yesterday, I gushed about how fantastic it was to learn from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies (one of the Rabbinical Schools of the Conservative Movement). It was the kind of talk which had us all changing our afternoon plans to attend his 2nd session (which was great, if not as unbelievably wonderful), talking about the session the rest of the day, and so on. It was really that good.

But, I can't figure out how to describe it to you.

Officially, the session was on new, spiritual ways to read the story of The Binding of Isaac (Abraham's near sacrifice, at God's command, of his dearest son, Isaac). And, Artson did offer some powerful interpretations of this powerful, fraught story (one of which is an early contender for a High Holy Day sermon). But, what it was really about is how we, as Rabbis, have to use Torah to help other people find and express meaning.

I'm sitting here, trying to find words to summarize, or even approach, what he taught us. Maybe after listening to it again (I recorded it - I so desperately hope the recording is good!) I'll have a bit more clarity. But, my memory and my notes are just inadequate to capture what he was saying. But, let me give it a shot.

Start with one basic fact - obvious once said, but often unrealized: the Torah, our holiest book, does not tell us how it wants to be read. It's easy to forget that -- especially after thousands of years of Rabbis (and others) telling us what it means. And, many of those interpretations are very, very important. But, they aren't right. They aren't what the Torah really means. They are what the Torah meant to those people, at that moment, in that place.

The Torah is not some perfect instruction book, handed down in all of its holy perfection by an active, external God. The Torah is a book written by people (men, most likely) over a long period. But it was, in large part, written by people who were expert in capturing their inner spiritual lives in writing. And, for millenia, it's been used by those seeking to explore their own inner spiritual lives. And so, it becomes a fantastic tool for us to use in order to explore and project our own inner lives.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that we're supposed to just read the Torah and talk about how it makes us feel. What we're supposed to do is read the Torah, then study the Torah, then study what others have said about it. And then we read it (again) and talk about how it makes us feel. Or, what it makes us think about. Or, what we believe. Or, what angers us. Or, what confuses us. And, we share that. And then we do it again. And that's how we discover what the Torah truly means.

But, Artson contends (and I agree), we won't let ourselves do that, because we don't trust our own authenticity. We don't trust our own Jewish authenticity. We think that someone else's stories are more valid, more true, because they come from someone with a deeper Jewish background, with broader knowledge. From someone who is more Jewish - or, at least, more authentically so.

Our job is not to read the Torah as if it were some ancient book of perfection, and our role is to understand and do - nothing more. The Torah is a book which we use to explore the world around us, and the world within us. It is (my words; his idea - I think) a book that don't believe in, but we believe through.

I'm not capturing this. Believe me - I'm really not expressing this right. I'm getting close to something, but there's so much missing. Everything I've written here (more or less) I knew already, but there was something about what he said, and the way in which he said it, which was so much more than this. Like I said, I'm going to listen to this again, and try to write some more. But, I'm going to make damn sure that I also think about this, very carefully, before I teach any Torah again.

Artson started off both sessions by making a seemingly innocuous, but ultimately essential and radical suggestion: that we stop saying things that we don't believe. Judaism will only survive if we doggedly, zealously avoid lies. Avoid saying anything that we don't believe. Torah, we are taught, is truth. Truth is the ultimate seal of God. Our own truth, which we might find through the Torah, is truth. It's that truth - all truth - that we seek.

If any colleagues who were there want to jump in on this - please do!

And, by the way, check out Rabbi Artson's Bedside Torah. It will show you a bit about how he reads Torah. And, it's so, so good.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tweeting While Learning

I'm one of the guest bloggers at the Rabbinic Convention going on right now in Long Beach, CA. Here's a posting which will go up there, just as soon as I can figure out how to get into the system!

I've been thinking a lot about technology and presence.

I'm a techie - I have a degree in Computer Science, and I love my various iGadgets. I'm a big Facebook user, a not-so-enthusiastic Tweeter, and so on. And, like many of my colleagues, I've taken to Tweeting and/or Facebooking during sessions - posting great quotes or insights from the speakers, or sometimes a thought or reaction that I have. It can be a lot of fun - others who aren't here can comment and participate - at least a little. And, sometimes it turns into a virtual side-conversation among several of us who are doing this.

But, it's happened - fairly often, actually - that I've missed something in the presentation, because I was typing about the last comment. Or, because I was readiing someone else's comment. Or - no surprise here - because I got sucked into Facebook/Twitter/Whatever and stopped paying attention for a minute or 5.

It's not news, but it really is impossible to multi-task. We do one thing, and then switch to another. We can, sometimes, do that very rapidly, but we can't actually do to things at once. So, when we're Social Media-ing, we aren't giving our full attention to the presenter, or the presentation. We aren't fully present in that moment, and we're very likely to miss something. Maybe something valuable.

At times, I love being part of this Virtual Convention. But, I'm starting to think it's not really worth it. I'm thinking about not doing any of this for the rest of the convention. Or, at least, a whole lot less. I don't think anyone will really mind...

By the way, there are, of course, major conversations going on about the value of using this kind of Social Networking as part of the tefillah experience. As someone who thinks that Mindfulness is an essential component of prayer, you can guess what my gut reaction is to that! But, that's for another post...