Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A classic reprint! Miles Davis, human brotherhood, and my Jewish spirit

(Please note - I originally wrote this piece four years ago, in celebration of Miles' 80th birthday. I post it here in honor of his ongoing legacy)

Today marks the 84th anniversary of the birth of Miles Davis - one of the most important figures in modern music and culture. Along the path of life, we find many different influences, and Miles ranks as one of my favorite artists, and a source of great interest and inspiration.
I recall fondly my time as the rabbinic intern at the Hillel Jewish Student Center at the University of Cincinnati, during my studies at HUC-JIR. We had the great fortune to engage in leadership development along with the staff of the African-American Cultural Center on campus. One exercise we conducted was called "cultural sharing" - for which each participant had been asked to bring an item of significant personal or family identity from home, and be willing to explain why the object was meaningful. Someone had a piece of art...someone had a special book....another a family photo...with me, I had the mezzuzah given to us by Debra's congregation in honor of our wedding.
One colleague from the African-American center showed up with Miles' album "Kind of Blue" (a classic, groundbreaking work that still enriches the musical imagination). I quietly asked if he'd borrowed it from my collection. It immediately fostered a genuine bond between us, where none had been before. This experience culminated in our agencies co-sponsoring an art exhibit showing the great migration of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel during the 80's and 90's. Staring at one of the magnificent oversized photographs of a wise looking older tribesman, the same colleague said to me "you know what's great about this picture? I can't tell if it's your cousin or mine." Both of us then realizing how interconnected we were as human beings.
To me, this remains the message of art, and especially music - that the richness of life unites us as a human family, even while offering us the sacred, dignified opportunity to embrace what makes us unique, and even different. Perhaps this is what Jewish tradition teaches us with the term b'tzelem elohim - that each of us is created, modeled after the Divine.
And so, as I choose to celebrate this Miles Davis anniversary - I hope we will all continue to find enrichment, encouragement and blessing in the many various pieces of life that we enjoy - from music and art to food and fine wine, and especially in the loving embrace of family and friends who share with us along life's path.

Happy birthday Miles...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

30 Years of Maximum R&B

This is a big week: we observed the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai; one of my favorite all-time personal muses, Pete Townshend, turned 65 (!); and this coming Shabbat will be the 30th anniversary of my becoming a Bar Mitzvah. It’s been three decades since I was called to the Torah on Shabbat Naso – to read the portion which includes the famous “Priestly Benediction” – the three-part offering by the priests through which God bestowed divine blessing upon the people:

May Adonai bless you and protect you!

May Adonai shine divine kindness and grace upon you!
May Adonai be present with you, and grant you peace!

(I happen to be a sucker for the following line: “Thus they shall place My name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”)

Anyone familiar with Jewish practice knows that we use this divine charge as a blessing throughout the life-cycle: at b’rit milah and baby naming, Consecration of new students, b’nei mitzvah, weddings, anniversaries…all the significant moments of celebration are highlighted with these words. I have been privileged now for 15 years in the congregational rabbinate to recite these lines innumerable times – and each time I recite these lines, I introduce them by reminding those present that it is my honor to do so on behalf of our sacred tradition and the gathered assembly (it is still God who bestows blessings – no matter how hip, savvy, or well-dressed a modern clergy person might beJ).

Looking back thirty years – I do recall studying this portion and its significance with my mentor (thank you Rabbi Henry A. Zoob, my beloved teacher and rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth David in Westwood, MA). Yet I had no idea then that this simple set of three phrases would become such a valuable instrument in my professional tool kit. What is it that I do remember from that milestone? Well of course the gathering of family and friends remains foremost in my mind. I think of our dear friends from NY arriving late for the celebration, when we didn’t think they’d be able to attend at all (Sarah D., I think I still deserve a piece of chocolate cake). And most specially, I recall on that Wednesday, my mother asking me for $2. When I asked “what for”, she said “never mind, just pay attention.” I learned on Friday evening that my modest contribution had enabled me to sponsor the flowers decorating the sanctuary in honor of my grandmother. Grandma and I were both delighted to hear it announced.

And perhaps what’s the most significant piece of learning that sticks with me? I appreciate the milestone of Bar Mitzvah for what is was (and is) supposed to be: not some sort of hocus-pocus-coming-of-age-ceremony for a kid who didn’t even know what that saying means. Truly, I know that gathering together on May 24, 1980 (corresponding to the Hebrew date 9 Sivan 5740) was but one of MANY such intentional, happy, sacred occasions on which the power of Judaism to shape and enhance my life has been clearly evident.

I’ve certainly grown and changed and hopefully improved since that time. And it will only be about another year-and-a-half before a Bar Mitzvah picture of my son gets placed beside the one of my dad. Thankfully it’s still amazing to look in the mirror and see the same kid looking back, refusing to get old.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Our stories, their stories - the Immigrant Song, no matter when, the Song Remains the Same

Shavuot, which is Hebrew for “weeks”, is one of the three major pilgrimage occasions that arose in our ancient tradition. Along with Sukkot and Passover, Shavuot was one of the holidays for which our Israelite ancestors traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple. Unfortunately, Shavuot seems to get minimal attention because of its proximity to the end of the school year and summer vacations. However, Shavuot has MAJOR importance thematically, as it truly celebrates our greatest gift – the Torah.

“Torah,” of course, is more than the scroll with the Five Books of Moses; it represents all learning. And so Shavuot takes on the significant position of being a celebration of the Jewish commitment to the life-long opportunity to study and grow.

For three years now, my congregation (Temple Beth-El, South Bend, IN – has used the occasion of Shavuot to engage in learning around issues of social justice. We will do so again this year. On the eve of Shavuot, this Tuesday May 18th we will explore our Michiana Jewish roots knowing that We Were Strangers Too (for more on this program, see:

Our study opportunity (tikkun leyl Shavuot) will ask:

  • How does our experience as an immigrant people inform our understanding of today's immigrant experience?
  • What are some of the issues involved in today’s policy debate over immigration reform?

(Believe it or not, we brainstormed this program prior to the latest explosion of related stories in the news.)

In addition to our festival evening service, it is traditional to enjoy a dairy meal (ok, we’re also making tradition fit the occasion – as the dinner will feature dairy Mexican foods prepared by members of one of the local churches, from whose members we will hear contemporary stories of immigration). Making the connection between our stories (how well we know that we Jews are all immigrants, many times over) and the concerns that affect more recent immigrants – our program will culminate by exploring current issues for our own consideration, explanation, and possible advocacy. I’m looking forward to a fascinating evening.

So – what are you doing to learn and grow? What issues or concerns do you have about today’s world? What might you be doing to celebrate the gift of Torah? As our ancient sages taught: turn it, and turn it again – for everything is in it.

CHAG SAMEYACH – wishing you a joyous and meaningful festival.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I had the wonderful opportunity yesterday (Monday, May 10) to attend a symposium at the University of Notre Dame marking the publication of a festschrift in memory of Rabbi Michael Signer. This new book, Transforming Relations: Essays on Jews and Christians throughout History in honor of Michael A. Signer, is a loving testament to the life’s work and passion of a remarkable man. The volume was edited by Franklin Harkin, one of his former students, who helped coordinate the program. As made evident through the day’s presentations, anyone who was ever one of Michael’s students remained in his sphere, as he took special interest in his students’ accomplishments, careers and lives well after leaving the classroom.

The event itself was marvelous: Attendees were treated to presentations by several of Michael’s colleagues and students. The words dialogue and relationship emerged repeatedly in describing his work and perspective about the world. Summing it up beautifully, Rabbi David Ellenson said “Michael’s passion was to introduce friends to friends.” All who knew him recognized this sweet truth. The day was truly a celebration of his dynamic career – in both academia and the world of social justice, activity and education that stemmed from the textual tradition he so loved. Most fitting, several of the Signers’ dearest friends were present to honor him as well. It was moving to witness their affection and support for Michael’s beloved Betty throughout the program as well.

After serving more than 15 years on the faculty of HUC-JIR, Michael held the Abrams Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture at Notre Dame from 1992 until his untimely death in January 2009. He was also deeply involved in the wider Jewish world, and was of course especially engaged as a leader in interfaith dialogue. Michael served on numerous committees and commissions that sought such understanding. Our world is better for his effort. Michael was teacher, mentor, colleague and friend to so many during his life, and it is already clear that his profound and broad influence will carry on for many years to come.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love (and then again...)

Yesterday was pretty cool. I was reminded of the power of being linked to other human beings. It was my birthday – and I was delighted to receive (literally) hundreds of warm, sweet, kind birthday greetings. Some messages were by phone, some by email, quite a few via Twitter, FaceBook, and text. Heck, I even got a bunch of well wishes in person (what a novel ideaJ). I was touched by each one of them, and tried to respond to each sender individually. Truly, I feel very much loved. And there’s more. Though this could be another post about the effective tool of social network media (yes, I do feel that I’m basically in touch with virtually every person I’ve ever known), it really isn’t. What I’m really thinking about goes much deeper. Yesterday’s experience was a reminder about the sanctity of CONNECTEDNESS.

Without sounding too hokey – I have come to understand that connectedness is the root (and end result) of the religious quest. I am profoundly moved by a passage in Art Green’s masterful new book Radical Judaism, Rethinking God & Tradition:

The intimations of holiness I encounter in both time and space serve as windows through which I catch brief glimpses of an underlying cosmic unity, insights into a deeper truth about being…All of existence is holy. Every creature, whether alive and sensate or “inanimate,” is nothing other than the sacred presence of Y-H-W-H, hidden and revealed through yet another of its endless masks. No creature is truly separate from my own self, since I too am but one of the masks of God. My “self” is nothing other than a manifestation of the single Self of being, having ever so temporarily arranged its molecules in a pattern that allows for this particular manifestation. My love and reverence for all creatures, including all the human and nonhuman others I encounter, derives from the awareness that we are all one in Y-H-W-H. This awareness calls upon me to know and to care for those others, as I partake in and celebrate the diversity though which our shared inner Self becomes present in the world.

Beyond the possibility of being connected with all around us – by definition we are so interrelated. Our sacred task is not so much to create such connections, more so to recognize and cultivate these relationships. Almost funny how a few voice mails, electronic messages, and good ol’ Hallmark greeting cards could remind me of something so meaningful: working on our sacred connectedness to one another, we engage our potential to animate the divine in every other we meet. Martin Buber said “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings;” and further, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” I am fortunate to experience that surge in my encounters; may we be blessed to generate such energy all along the path of our lives.