Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The (over the top, exuberant, wonderful) Joy of Sukkot (and Simchat Torah)!

At our Sukkot Lunch-and-Learn today, we looked at a fantastic text from Kedushat Levi. He quotes Lev 23:40 which, when talking about the mitzvah of the lulav, starts off by saying, "On the first day, take the fruit of the lovely tree..."

Midrash Tanhuma notices a problem: it says "On the first day," but this is the 15th day of the 7th month. How can you call this the first day?* What this is, the midrash teaches, is the first day on which God counts our sins. Great! Conundrum solved! Except, we have no idea what that means…

* It actually means "On the first day of Sukkot," but Rabbis never let a simple answer get in the way of a good teaching.

What it means, the author (Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev) tells us is that in between Yom Kippur and the beginning of Sukkot, God doesn't pay attention when we sin.

Okay – don't take this too literally. It isn't saying that we have a four day window during which God ignores all of our sins, and we can therefore do anything that we want. There are, of course, limits. Think of it as a parent who gives a child permission to hang out in their room for a few hours, promising that they won't come and check on them. Of course there are things they still can't do, and things that will get them in trouble. But, as long as you don't go too far, you've got some time to yourself, without being watched over.

The real question, then, is why would God do this? Well, it's all about the two reasons people might repent.

The High Holy Days are focused on "repentance out of fear." Essentially, God is saying to us that we have to start being better, or we're in for it. Divine punishment, the Book Life and Death, etc. This kind of repentance is good — it is, after all, repentance. But, it's not great. It's not ideal.

But, as soon as Yom Kippur is over, we're supposed to turn our attention to Sukkot. And, unlike Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a holiday of joy. We are commanded to rejoice, and the holiday makes it pretty easy to do that – you get to go outside and play (which, if you don't live in Florida, is a real treat this time of year). You get to create a fun little hut, and decorate it. You get to take some plants and wave them all around. I'm not really capturing it very well here, I think, but Sukkot is a time of real fun. Even a bit of silliness, maybe.

This, Levi Yitzhak teaches, is an example of "repentance out of joy." We do what we're supposed to do not because we're afraid of punishment, but because we love what we're supposed to do! And, God much prefers that. God wants us to do the right thing (and, "the right thing" has a lot of room for interpretation) not because we're afraid of punishment, because we really, really want to.

In the end, the ideal is not just to act a certain way. the deal is to feel a certain way, too. Don't just act like a good Jew*. Love Judaism, too.

* whatever that means

And, that led us to a truly important side discussion. Sukkot has to be a joyous holiday. And, the truth is, we don't always get that right. Don't get me wrong – we have fun on Sukkot. But, not enough. Sukkot should be at least as much fun as Yom Kippur is difficult. And, if you ask me, that's a whole lot of fun.

Well, as Sukkot ends, we have one last chance to have FUN! Simchat Torah is a bit of an extra holiday, tacked onto the end of Sukkot. We celebrate the ending of a Torah reading cycle as we start the next one. We dance around with the Torah scrolls, sing songs and have a bit of fun in the synagogue.

And, this year, I'm excited to say that we're going to have more fun than ever before here at Beth Am, because we're also debuting our new band (name to be decided soon revealed that night)! We've got some amazingly talented musicians who are going to fill our sanctuary with music, as we fill it with joy.

And, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but that sounds a whole lot better than a day of fasting...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

For The Sin of Homophobia--an important addendum

I've been incredibly gratified by the reaction to my Yom Kippur sermon, "For The Sin of Homophobia." But, it turns out that I had at least one significant error in it.

At one point, I reference the term "mishkevei isha" -- "lie with a woman," as in "do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman..." in Leviticus. It turns out that that phrase is probably a technical phrase, referring to prohibitions on sex, such as incest (which are enumerated, in great detail, elsewhere in Leviticus). Thus, I claimed, "do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman" might actually be better translated as "the same restrictions apply to men and women." It's not about homosexuality, at all, I said.

I got that last part wrong. The truth is much, much better.

When I was writing the sermon, I couldn’t find the reference about mishkevei isha, but I had clearly remembered learning it, so I included it. But, I had this nagging feeling that something was a bit off. Then, the morning after Yom Kippur (of course), I remembered where I had seen this. It was in Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s amazing responsum (Rabbinic legal opinion) on Same Sex Marriage for the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (see bottom of p. 5)*. When I checked it, I discovered that I had remembered the definition of mishkevei isha correctly, but the new translation of that verse is even more dramatic.

* It's a long, somewhat technical piece. But, it's brilliant. If you like Rabbinic writing, it's a must-read.

According to Biblical Scholar Jacob Milgrom, it quite possibly might be properly rendered as, “All of the restrictions on sex with a woman apply equally to sex with a man.” So, the verses bandied about by homophobes might actually be acknowledging the legality of homosexual sex, so long as it’s non-incestuous, non-adulterous and the like.

Judaism didn't have to become anti-homosexuality. But, it did. It does not, however, have to remain so.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Holiness of Sadness

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, Hillary pointed out an article she had read about yoga and sadness. Essentially, it was pointing out the mistake that many people make in thinking that yoga, or any spiritual practice, is about making us feel happier.

It isn't.

It's not that yoga, or meditation, or prayer, or any spiritual exercise isn't able to make us feel better. Quite often, there's nothing that is more effective at doing exactly that. But, that's not exactly the point of these practices. At their core, they aren't about feeling happier, or feeling better. They're about feeling reality. They're about feeling what we really feel, with complete, open honesty.
Here is the thing. Yoga is not about bliss, but about honesty. Spirituality is not certainty, but the longing of the heart. Enlightenment is not ‘letting go’ of bad feelings, but understanding them, what they’re doing to us, and how they are expressed in the body. Non-harming and forgiveness are not about feeling generous or big enough (bigger than and condescending), but knowing the difficulty of right actions and assuming responsibility for the difficult. Forgiveness often comes directly out of acknowledging how bloody bitter we are. Love is not joy, all the time. Sometimes, love hurts. Love is raw.
It's true that, long-term, these spiritual practices can be an essential part of leading a happy, balanced life. But, it's an enormous mistake to confuse that long-term goal with the short-term reality. If we are currently experiencing some distress, great or small, in our lives, then something which simply glosses over it and makes us feel better isn't really helping — that's not progress, it's denial. Real progress (on a personal, emotional, spiritual level) happens when we face whatever is bothering us, and then figure out how we can move through it, and past it.

If someone told you that they exercised to be healthier, and to feel better, you would think that makes perfect sense. But, if that same person told you that they quit exercising because they felt strained, and sometimes were in pain, during the exercise? You'd think they weren't serious about trying to get healthier. Sometimes, you have to fight through the pain in order to feel better, later.

This is one of the insights which has stayed with me, as much as any other, from my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman. Officially, he was our professor of liturgy in Rabbinical School, but he taught us all so much more. One of the things which he tried to make us understand was exactly what this article is saying: religion isn't about being happy all the time. Religion isn't about convincing ourselves that the world is peachy keen, and all we have to do is sit back with a blissful smile and bask in the warm radiance of divine love.

Religion is (or, should be) about facing reality. It's about going through life with honesty, but with a language which helps us name and understand that reality, and a community which supports us as we go through it. Imagine speaking with someone who is just endured some terrible tragedy, and telling them that, really, everything is all right. There's nothing to be sad about. That's not spiritual, it's offensive. There is, quite probably, something about that which the person should be incredibly sad — tragedies are real, and they are (not to put too fine a point on it) tragic.

Our hope is that by facing that reality, and doing it in a meaningful way, within a loving, supportive community, that person will be able to move on with life. And, in the best case, find happiness, once again. But sadness is part of everyone's life, and pretending otherwise isn't helpful, and isn't holy.

Some of you (members of my congregation) might recognize this teaching — it's essentially what I said before the Haftarah reading on Rosh Hashanah.  Hannah is unable to have children, and her husband, Elkanah, response to her by saying, essentially, "Why are you so sad? Isn't having me in your life good enough?" His response is wrong on so many levels, but one of them is that rather than trying to be there to support her in her pain, he was trying to get her to simply feel better, to behave, and feel, as if there was no pain. "Cheer up — your life is pretty good, and there's no reason to be so down." His mistake was in thinking that his job was to cheer her up. Even if his attempt hadn't been as ham-handed as it was, it was still misguided. His job should have been to simply be there with her, and try to help her through the pain.

It's not always pleasant, and it's not always fun. But it's real. And, therefore, it's holy.
The end isn’t this negativity, this disappointment. But negativity is part of the path, and it has to be gone through if you want to understand it, to understand yourself, at all. If you don’t, you’ll be shutting down half of your experience of life, and probably the best strengths you’ll ever find. If you don’t, you’ll continue to skip, overcompensate, repeat and lull. You’ll segue irritation into nicety, stuff it, and it will erupt later as rage toward an intimate or yourself.
The sages teach that God's seal is truth. Seal--as in that imprint made in the wax which closes a letter, in order to verify its sender. Truth is the sign that the letter we just received, so to speak, is really from God, not from some impostor. That which is not true can never be from God. It can never be holy.

As we approach Yom Kippur, may we do so with complete, open, even brutal honesty. May we face our lives with all of the happiness and sorrow they bring us. And may we leave the day stronger, for having faced our truths, together.

G'mar Chatima Tova.