Friday, July 3, 2015

a thought for erev July 4th

Fireworks into nerot, a keg for Kiddush
Sheet cake flag unfurled, stripes intertwined like challah

“When in the course of human events” urged by
Vay’chulu hashamayim v’ha-araetz…

The self-evidence of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Finally allows for shavat vayinafash

Friday, June 26, 2015

A wider tent

Mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov mishk’notekha yisrael
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!

Jewish daily morning prayer opens with these words that transformed the prophet-for-hire Balaam’s intent to curse the Israelites into an eternal blessing for the people. Recognizing and affirming the beauty and sanctity of the community and all its members is a standard we have strived to achieve throughout the generations. It takes compassion, generosity of the spirit and a true concern for our fellow human to overcome those obstacles – racism, misogyny, bias of all types – that have diminished some in the eyes of others.
This morning, we were woken to the news that the Supreme Court, ruling regarding same sex marriage, had relied upon upholding the 14th Amendment (which asserts equal protection under the law) to safeguard marriage equality. In closing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote these words, which are already receiving much-due attention for their content and eloquence:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
In recent memory I don’t think read a more “Jewish” plea for social justice and civil rights than these words today. Yes, ours remains a culture that is challenged by a range of social ills from poverty and homelessness to inequality of pay. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court renews hope that our society still has what it takes to mend the world’s brokenness, and that the “American dream” is within reach of all.

Mah tovu – today our tent got a little wider, and a little more beautiful.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Nuances of rebellion

This week’s Torah portion, Korach, is customarily seen to illustrate a paradigmatic example of rebellion against authority. In it, Korach and his followers apparently rise up against Moses’ leadership, and question his right to lead the people. At the outset they suggest that Moses is no more suited to hold that station than anyone else in the community, as all of them are holy, and God is among them (emphasis mine). Throughout the ages there have been discussions of this incident: Korach’s jealousy of his cousin Moses; whether Korach’s perspective is worth consideration; how to squelch such tumult; Moses’ response(s); and so on…one’s understanding of these issues is based upon the idea that Korach and his followers present themselves in a defiant stance. Is it possible that the text offers different possibilities? Of course, if we but explore the wording itself, paying particular attention to the verbs in use.
In the standard JPS translation (among the most widely used Jewish versions) we read:
Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth – descendants of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred fifty representatives of the Israelites…
Here, the main protagonist is clearly Korach, who takes himself (and the others along the way) in order to challenge Moses. This wording opens a chapter of rebellion. We find a difference in both focus and intent in the classic Soncino Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by Dr. JH Hertz – likely the leading English language Torah used for the majority of the 20th century:
Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up in the face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men…
In this version Korach is not entirely singled out in the leading role; he and the other named character “take men” (as opposed to betook himself”) in order to present themselves unto Moses. Perhaps, as they make their case, it is to relieve Moses of the overwhelming burden of managing the Israelites – just as his father-in-law Jethro had done immediately prior to receiving the Ten Commandments. A thought to ponder.
Robert Alter, in his masterful The Five Books of Moses, offers another possibility, retaining the ambiguity of the original Hebrew:
And Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab and On son of Peleth sons of Reuben, took up, and they rose before Moses, and two hundred fifty men of the Israelites…and they assembled against Moses…
In his commentary, Alter notes that “took up” is vague at best; the common completion of the phrase, “took up men,” is merely *understood* – whereas it can also easily be read to mean that he (indicating Korach, as Alter points out that the verb is singular, referring mainly to him) “took it upon himself” or “steeled himself up” and therefore “rebelled.”
Finally I would include the rendition offered by Everett Fox in his groundbreaking Five Books of Moses (yes, we aren’t that innovative when it comes to titles). His work is fascinating because of his very particular attention to idiom, and the preservation of Hebrew words and phrases in the text for their specific merit/meaning. Fox advances:
Now there betook himself Korah son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi, and Dathan and Aviram the sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet the sons of Reuven – to rise up before Moshe with men-of-stature from the Children of Israel, 250, leaders of the community…
Again in this instance, Fox’s account – while suggesting that Korach’s own plan to confront Moses is his alone – allows for the possibility that the entire episode is not necessarily rebellious in nature from the outset. This gathering of men of stature could be viewed as a demonstration of the importance of what they had to say to Moses – perhaps insubordinate indeed and yet maybe something else – which remains important to consider.
So this is often true for the situations we meet, when we are faced by others. If we jump to conclusions about their intentions from the outset, without (patiently) weighing additional possibilities, the only expected outcome can be devastating conflict – usually difficult to overcome. Yet not every encounter needs to be a challenge, not every interaction a trial. We have it within us to express greater measures of compassion, kindness and generosity toward one another – which might yet mend the world.

Friday, June 5, 2015

More than enough

True contentment is an elusive feat for us to achieve. Shouldn’t it be enough to have a loving family, a safe roof over our heads, and the opportunity to wake up every day and do something of worth and value with my life? The answer is – certainly. However, it’s hard to keep these things in mind all the time. It can be easy to fall back on thinking about those issues of dissatisfaction or incompleteness. We all struggle with overcoming this notion of emptiness. The ancient Rabbis offered timeless wisdom. They taught us, “Who is rich? [It is] the person who is content with what he [or she] has” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). When we remember this simple formula, when we overcome our penchant to be *miton’nim*, “complainers,” we too can be content with our lot.

Wishing a Shabbat of contentment, and peace...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pete Townshend and the ancient rabbis - a birthday post

Introspective. Elegant. Angry. Honest. Powerful. Disturbing. Uplifting. These and a host of other terms come to mind when I think about the work of my favorite songwriter, Pete Townshend, whose birthday is marked today. For this kid, who grew up inspired by the words of Jewish tradition and the lyrics of rock’n’roll – PT emerged for me as the poet laureate of his generation. The ancient sage Hillel proposed “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” as Pete declared “Don’t pretend that you know me – I don’t even know myself;” Hillel continued “If I am *only* for myself, what am I?” to which Townshend responds “Can you see the real me?” Knowing our understanding evolves, Ben Bag Bag (with perhaps the most fun name in Jewish tradition) taught regarding Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it;” a tormented PT offers “the music must change.”  Torah demands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may long live and endure…” and Pete screams, “Long live rock!” Ultimately, we are urged to “love our neighbor as yourself,” as the poet pleads “Love, reign o’er me,” and we are transported to the world that ought to be.
The timeless and the timely again intertwined in the oeuvre of a beloved, conflicted, struggling artist. Beautiful and ironic, as we celebrate the 70th (!) birthday of the guy who splashed onto the scene some 50 years ago with the iconic youthful anthem “hope I die before I get old.” The rabbis, with their own sense of mocking wit, have declared “at seventy, one reaches the fullness of life.” And rather than lamenting his perseverance, Townshend has grown into an elder statesman of our musical world. And he continues to move and arouse us. There is still no one who can match what he and Roger can accomplish on stage – with his fiery playing, arm-swinging guitar bravado, and plaintive vocal virtuosity.
PT has spent a lifetime tilting at his own windmills like Don Quixote (ooh, see what I did there?), and teaches us what it is to be comfortable struggling with our own demons. Without his angst-driven emotional explorations – with both guitar and pen – we would not be blessed with the hard rock, heavy metal, punk and grunge as we know today. No one exemplifies the extremes of expressive possibility of gear and jargon as he has for the last half century.

Pete – as you continue, as the rabbis urge ad me’ah v’esrim – until 120 – may it ever be for you that

You know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Continuing evolution of Jewish marriage?

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its publication, I am re-reading and studying Eugene Mihaly’s Responsa on Jewish Marriage. To introduce this brief piece, Dr. Mihaly (z”l) states:  “A number of colleagues, prompted by the recently published and widely circulated statement, questions and answers entitled “Reform Rabbis and Mixed Marriage,” addressed a series of questions to me related to Jewish marriage. I shall address myself to four of them…” (p.9).
As the seeming “traditional” stance of the rabbinate had been to deny interfaith officiation, and while instances of intermarriage expanded exponentially especially following 1970, Reform Judaism had taken to wrestling with the matter (note, Mihaly indicates that officiation at interfaith marriages has “agitated” liberal Judaism since at least the Braunschweig conference of 1844). It seemed that the issue pitted the customary ideal of Jewish endogamy (in-marriage) against the vaunted Reform principle of autonomy and choice regarding personal practice, including rabbinical. The “statement” suggests the autonomy of Reform rabbis to determine their stance on officiation, while expressing that “Rabbis who do officiate at mixed marriage ceremonies do so contrary to the clear guidelines of their rabbinic organization.” This is perhaps the greatest dilemma that faced the Reform rabbinate, and community, over the past generation.
In his treatment of the topic, Mihaly examines historical and halakhic resources and standards related to such things as rabbinical authority, the limits of coercive power of denominations/professional organizations over its members, and most especially, traditional technical terms like kiddushin (marriage/sanctification) and kedat moshe v’yisrael (according to the law of Moses and Israel). I recall in seminary more than twenty years ago, when the clear overwhelming majority of American rabbis did not officiate at interfaith ceremonies, including Mihaly’s text was heated, if not controversial. Some (including myself) saw its intent to “force” those who didn’t wish to officiate to do so. As young professionals, our own struggle to decide on this issue was so heated that we generally avoided discussing officiation altogether.
Re-reading this work now is fascinating – as our Jewish world, its demography & sociology, has changed so dramatically (even see Hayim Herring’s current piece on paradigm shift,, as I guess so have I. If Judaism is truly progressive, which I ultimately believe, so too must Jewish marriage continue to evolve. Most powerfully regarding rabbinic officiation, Mihaly writes:
The Jewish validity of marriage is not dependent on what the rabbi does or does not say. What matters is the intent of the bridegroom and bride and what they say to each other. The authors of the Statement themselves clearly affirm, “It is not the Rabbi, according to our Jewish tradition, who marries a couple; the bride and groom marry one another (p. 20).
Don’t get me wrong – serving as the rabbi at weddings has been one of the great joys I've experienced. Thankfully, though perhaps not necessary Jewishly, an officiant is mandated in our society legally. I am not, and would never, advocate for ceremonies without the guidance, presence and involvement of trained and skilled clergy. Rather, I know that in our world, especially in our day, we need to be as inclusive and expansive in how we embrace those who wish to marry. Concluding his essay, Dr. Mihaly writes:
Whatever alternative we as Reform Jews adopt, however, we cannot, we must not and, with the help of a benign Providence, we will not deny the blessings of Judaism to our children. If we are to speak with the young men and women whom we consecrated and confirmed, we must be prepared to say, as our ancestors heard the good Lord Himself say to His beloved people: “Your pain is My pain (‘Immo ‘Anokhi betzarah).” “Your joy is our joy; we are with you in your soul struggle, in your travail – open, accepting, loving, understanding. We face this together” (p.83).
Took me only 20 years to understand the good Dr. had it right all along…

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

They say it's your birthday!

"They say it's your birthday - it's my birthday too, yeah..."
Aah - the classics...
So celebrating my birthday today, I'm enjoying the loving outreach from so many friends, near and far. As I look to each message, I'm visualizing the connection to every person who sends: from my very longest-time friend and our childhood schoolmates to those from camp, high school, youth group, the college years, professional colleagues, various neighbors, musician friends, co-teachers, fellow activists and even a few I've only met in recent days...It's exciting to see the spectrum of my life captured in such a relatively brief span of time - first birthday wish actually arrived the other night (nearly two days early) and will likely continue over the several hours ahead. It's also fascinating to see how many of these seemingly disparate individuals overlap in the many areas of my life...(I am thankful to David Hachen for initially turning me onto the formal study of network theory).

Through the earlier part of the day, I was trying to come up with something witty, profound or even meaningful to write to capture my thoughts and feelings on this occasion. Yet I've been writing less these days, and couldn't find a prompt for my ideas. And it struck me - after some 45 years of writing - that expressing ourselves in words is much like playing music: no matter how long we've done it, how successful we've been at it, how much we might be gifted to do so - it requires continued, ongoing practice and repetition - not just to get "better" at it, yet even to maintain the ability we cultivate. Though somewhat like riding a bike (which supposedly you can't forget how), it takes discipline and dedication to articulate ourselves well.

So I guess that's my birthday gift to myself - rediscovering my enjoyment of writing, and rekindling my desire to do so. And now that I'm finally recuperating from a recent significant injury to my left index finger ("frankenfinger") I can get back to seriously playing the guitar, typing my heart out, and finding my voice. In favorite words from my favorite writer:

You can walk, you can talk, you can fight
But inside you've got something to write
In your hand you hold your only friend
Never spend your guitar or your pen