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, http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/educating-rabbis-for-jews-without-borders/), 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

Friday, April 3, 2015

The personal Seder plate - what prompts YOUR story?

The central task of the Seder is magid - retelling the story of the Exodus to teach its themes of freedom, redemption, empathy for the plight of others and our hope for the future. To emphasize this importance, the ancient rabbis said, "In every generation, one is to regard oneself as if personally taken out of Egypt. We ourselves are to understand that our own lives are stories of liberation, moving as it were from avdut/slavery toward cherut/freedom.
For the noble task of meaningfully recounting the age-old Passover story so it resonates with us today, the Seder table is filled with symbols that engage all our senses in the experience: there are sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches that enhance the spiritual and intellectual journey intended as part of the celebration. In addition to the matzah (which certainly embodies all the senses; what else feels like matzah crumbling in our hands, or has its unique taste and texture?), the Seder plate has six items for our considerarion (z'roah/shankbone, charoset/mortar, maror/bitter herbs, karpas/greens, chazeret/bitter leaf and beitzah/roasted egg) representing various elements of the narrative. And it is never sufficient merely to refer to these things: we point to them, lift them up, touch and taste, smell and sometimes even combine them to take in all they have to offer. Additionally, we have salt water, Elijah's cup, the four children and have added Miriam's cup and an orange, and much more...This multi-sensory approach is why the Passover Seder is perhaps the single-most instructive annual Jewish ritual.
I've been thinking lately "what about my own PERSONAL Seder plate?" That is, if I were to come up with certain articles that each prompted me to recall or tell something significant about my life's journey - what would I choose, and why? For this year's Seder, I ask you to do the same. What are the symbols on the Seder plate of your life? Thinking about them, and using them to share your story, may you fulfill the command to tell you child: "it is because of what God did for ME, when I myself went free from Egypt."
CHAG PESACH SAMEYACH - Wishing a joyous Passover to all.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tu B'shevat - planting for the future

Jewish tradition has taught for generations about "paying it forward." In one famous Talmudic tale of Honi the Circle Maker, we read:

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
This story is often used to express the Jewish value of providing for the future in fundraising campaigns - reminding us of another rabbinic teaching: eyn kemach eyn torah - "without flour (sustenance=$$=diƱeiro) there is no Torah." That is, without financial support of our institutions and causes, there can be no substantive learning and activity. How true. 
Of course, there are myriad additional ways for our community to "pay it forward" for the generations yet to come. This evening begins the holiday of Tu B'shevat - the Birthday of the Trees. Traditionally associated with the time that sap begins to run again in the trees in the land of Israel, it is our celebration of our commitment to maintaining the natural world. Somewhat of a Jewish "earth day" and environmental lollapalooza.
What are you doing to plant trees for the future? 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

what's on YOUR playlist?

In his latest book titled Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org) constructs a brilliant metaphor regarding modern Jewish life. He demonstrates that in today's world, unlike that of our parents and grandparents, Jews (and people of all religious denominations) wish to create, extremely autonomously, their own "set list" of religious involvement, institutional and otherwise. Whereas previous generations "bought the whole album" even if only looking for the one or two hit singles they enjoyed, our contemporaries are picking and choosing only those programs, opportunities, experiences and activities that are personally appealing and potentially fulfilling.  Introducing the concept in the book's foreword, insightful teacher Ron Wolfson makes the case, describing the evolution of recorded music over his lifetime. After fondly recalling purchasing singles and LPs, he notes:

...perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the experience was the necessity to endure those B-side tracks and the selection of mediocre songs that came as part of the album when it was really only one or two hits you wanted to hear. Today, of course, there is no need to buy the whole album or put up with an inferior B side. Today, internet-based technology enables me to choose only the songs I really want, the songs that really speak to me, the songs that make my own heart sing. Today, I create my personal playlist, my own mixtape of voices that move me. Today...the oft-cited aphorism "We are all Jews by choice" finds its ultimate expression in this twenty-first century Playlist Judaism. The question is, What shall Jewish communal leaders, clergy, and educators do to engage a population that refuses to buy the whole album and increasingly picks only those experiences that resonate with who they are and where they are on their very personal spiritual journeys?

This shift in perspective outlined by Wolfson and explored further by Olitzky has significant ramifications for the "organized" Jewish world. There are of course financial, programmatic, and institutional implications to be considered and navigated. More so, this new reality implies substantial consequences regarding people, personnel and what it means to create community. These are among the issues that Olitzky (and so many others of us today) are attempting to address.

So my question is: given the availability of such a wide range of entry points for involvement, and so many options for Jewish expression, what are those that you place on YOUR own playlist? Let me know...

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Toxic Emotions, revisited

Peter J. Frost, Toxic Emotions at Work and What You Can Do about Them
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
This is an oft-overlooked gem that should be read by every organizational leader, volunteer, and participant - especially regarding those times of challenging transition that seem to plague every type of outfit you can imagine.
Insightfully, Frost does not come up with a magic list of reasons for the toxicity that troubles our businesses, agencies, congregations (and even families). Rather, he forces the reader to confront the inherent reality of these difficulties (the nasty co-worker, the problematic situation, the tough merger....); whether or not the effect is a toxic one is dependent on the response to the given condition. He writes:
Pain is a fact of organizational life. Companies will merge, bosses will make unrealistic demands, people will lose their jobs. The pain that accompanies events like these isn't in itself toxic; rather, it's how that pain is handled throughout the organization that determines whether its long-term effects are positive or negative. What turns emotional pain into toxicity, especially in organized settings, is when others respond to that pain in a harmful, rather than healing, way (emphasis mine).
Ok - how many of us have experienced such behavior? Each and every time, it is that response - the harmful instead of healing one - that actually adds to, even multiplies, the poisoned state of affairs. And, these emotional toxins are just as insidious and dangerous as any harmful agent introduced to the body...
Frost goes on to discuss the "toxin handler" - that person in the organization who deals with the emotional and functional fallout that occurs. More often than not, this person isn't specifically designated - i.e. not necessarily part of the HR team. There's always that one person (or a few) that becomes the "go-to" resource for bitching, moaning, complaining, and ultimately brainstorming and repairing that which can be fixed. Important to note - through processing the toxins out of colleagues (and perhaps the system), the toxin handler also needs a great measure of care and cleansing - to purge the accumulated contamination. Organizations that do well in cultivating an atmosphere in which toxins are eliminated and toxin handlers are well cared for are better positioned to thrive.
And those who don't...