B’hukotai: Sing Unto God a New Song

jewish-music-carlebach

This D’var Torah was given at the final Shabbat service of my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem campus, May 2014.

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. These words of the ancient Psalmist are some of the most beloved today, especially because of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s beautiful rendition that is now sung worldwide during Kabbalat Shabbat. We all know Rabbi Carlebach from his renowned rejuvenation of Jewish music, but we tend to forget his other accomplishment of helping to bring Chasidic thought into mainstream Judaism. The power of the transformation he affected in our own movement is so clear that his own daughter Neshama recently declared her “aliyah” to Reform Judaism. His ability to radicalize Jewish mystical thought is well attested. Some may even say that he went too far at times.

Once, before leading a community in his rendition of Psalm 96, he asked, “How could it be that with all the Torah that was being studied and all the great luminaries in Europe, this tragic event could have occurred?”

We tend to shy away from answering this question when it comes to the Holocaust, or really any tragedy that has stricken the Jewish people in Modern times. Rabbi Carlebach was not so shy. “Perhaps,” he said, “The Torah being studied there was not good enough. Perhaps we need a new Torah.”

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash.

In our Torah portion this week, B’hukotai, we are regaled with a whole host of blessings and curses based on whether or not the Israelites follow God’s laws. Of course, one must immediately ask which laws. Reliable as always, Rashi jumps right in stating that what the Israelites, and therefore we, are commanded to do is toil in the study of Torah. This study is described by Rashi to be the foundation for maintaining the covenant with God, as he states that one who does not toil over the Torah, will then not fulfill the commandments, which leads to despising those who do follow the commandments and hating the Sages, which itself will lead to preventing others from fulfilling the commandments, and eventually ends with denying the authenticity of the commandments and God as well.

If there’s one thing I really don’t like, it’s a slippery slope argument. Yeah, I know, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah, but I’d rather flip Rashi on his head here and declare these things in the positive. To keep the covenant we must toil over Torah, which will lead us to following the commandments, loving those others who also do, and our Sages, and so on and so on, until through our embracing of our tradition we finally see, understand, and accept the omnipotence of God.

By flipping this around, we end up with a totally different relationship to God and the commandments. Our first step, which we have all embarked upon in earnest this year, is toiling over the Torah. We’ve toiled over the Torah of Moses, the Torah of Hazal,  the individual Torah of each individual’s personal experience, and the wonderful Torah brought to us by all of our faculty. Sounds like we’re on our way to some blessings, right? The rest of the path will just flow naturally out of our learning. And, following this, one of the blessings our Torah portion says we will receive for doing as God commands is that God will set up a covenant with us, with God’s people. In Rashi’s interpretation of this blessing, he sees the promise of a new covenant with the Israelites once they settle in their land, studying the Torah that had yet to be fully written.

Funny enough, in the narrative of the Torah, we’re just now ending Leviticus, which means the first covenant has only just now been established. In conjunction with this fact, the Israelites still have two books worth left of trekking before they reach the destination in which this whole blessing and curse formula will take effect. They are still a full generation out of their Promised Land, and are already being dealt out the stipulations for their descendent’s eventual habitation there.

We too are in a similar situation. We’ve just finished the first leg of our journey towards a lifetime of devotion to the Jewish people, and we know that there’s an endpoint to this training somewhere out there, but we may as well have the Sinai desert, checkpoints, border crossings, and all, between us and the endpoints of our programs.

We’ve also received quite a few warnings of blessings and curses that may come during the rest of our long haul in regards to our levels of toiling. Sure, we haven’t been threatened with having our sky turned to iron and our ground to copper like God threatened the Israelites, but I’ve got a feeling that our administration has some serious smiting power. So we’d better be toiling over that Torah. The question, though, is which Torah?

Rabbi Carlebach’s question about the Holocaust, and suggestion as to the answer, is rooted in a Kabbalistic teaching about the nature of Torah. According to the mystics, the Torah is to be renewed in every generation. It is remade by the masters for the students in a way that meets the needs of the particular time and place. One reading of his statement about the Torah of Europe prior to the Holocaust is that to make way for a new Torah, the old one had to be destroyed.

If we apply this idea to Rashi’s reading of the new covenant that was to be established should the Israelites follow all of God’s laws, what does this mean about the old covenant? Should we, as Reform Jews, be reimagining our covenant with God not only in terms of continuity with the past, but also to supersede the past? The first Reformers certainly did when they made their big break with the orthodoxies of their time, but what are the Reform orthodoxies of our time that make up our generation’s received, but yet to be renewed, Torah? What are we taking for granted?

I think that this question should be at the very core of each and every one of our minds. Ordained or still in school, part of the faculty or administration, if we are truly a community focused on Reform, the verb and the movement, our relationship to the past and the past’s relationship to the future should be weighed in every programmatic, theological, liturgical, and pedagogical decision we make. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Sing unto God a new song. We sing this regularly, often without considering the fact that it is a command. Even someone like me who doesn’t know the difference between soprano or tenor is commanded to sing a new song, in spite of the distress it might cause to everyone else’s ears.

Rashi, although obliquely, said the same thing: Toil over the Torah until a new covenant is made. Rabbi Carlebach said it much more directly: Sometimes the old Torah must make way for the new. Both of these men were ardently traditional, but both saw a path forward not through more of the same, but through the new.

This year in Israel I have been very lucky to be exposed to some wonderful new phenomena arising throughout the country. An attempt to renew the Israeli population’s relationship to Torah is under way. Dr. Ruth Calderon and those like her pushing for a renewal of the relationship of the hilonim to our textual traditions have made great strides. Yossi Klein Halevi sees hope in this renewal through the Israeli music scene, which we were lucky enough to experience first hand with Kobi Oz, System Ali, the rejuvenation of modern piyyutim, and countless other musical expressions of Judaism in Israel’s ever-growing music scene. I heard that some Israelis have even begun calling the people ordained here at HUC rabbis! The battle towards a new view on Progressive Judaism in Israel is underway, even if it sometimes seems bleak. The new Torah of the state of Israel is already being written, some of it right in these hallways.

Rabbi Carlebach’s reading of the Holocaust and its relationship to Jewish history and religion is definitely a radical one. There are many who would protest any such use of the Holocaust within a theological or religious framework due to the extremity and closeness of the event. These individuals would have a strong argument to do so. Regardless of the legitimacy of his thought, he made the statement. He taught new Torah from his heart.

Let us embarking upon a path of Jewish leadership not forget that we too can do this. We too can sing a new song, teach a new Torah. And not only can we, but we must. B’hukotai demands this of us, and so does the world. Let us teach a Torah of inclusion; a Torah of fearlessness in the face of change; a Torah no longer striving to maintain Jewish existence only for its own sake, but striving to make the Jewish people a blessing to all of the nations of the world; a Torah focused on how to bless our lives with meaning, not on a constant looming fear of curses. Wherever there is life, there is new Torah to be learned, and then to be taught. Let us never settle for teaching the same Torah that has been taught before. Let us teach a new Torah, each and every one, for the good of the Jewish people, and the good of the world. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Shabbat Shalom

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Parashat Mikeitz: The Sons of Ya’akov, Am Yisrael

Parashat Mikeitz picks up right in the middle of the grand saga of Yoseph’s life. After having shared his prophetic dreams of glory with his family, and having been clearly favored by his father for reporting on his brothers, these brothers sold him into slavery. This section begins with Yoseph’s rise to power in the Pharaoh’s court as a dream interpreter, and the eventual appearance of his brothers in search of relief from the famine that had stricken the region. In this narrative, we see one of the greatest pieces of family drama in the Torah. Packaged in this story is a glimpse into the very nature of human experience and relationship.

Yoseph’s seat of power in the Pharaoh’s administration, and his adoption of Egyptian dress and custom, prevent his brothers from recognizing him. While the drama plays out we get a rare view of both sides of the story. The Torah is renowned for its pregnant silence in the background of ostensibly emotional scenes, most notably in the near silence between Avraham and Yitzhak during the Aqeidah, but here we are given a candid view of emotion attempting to be hidden by Yoseph and his brothers. We are not only shown Yoseph’s private tears in response to seeing his brothers and finding out that his father is still alive, but we are also shown many of the individual brothers’ responses to the situation they are in.

Throughout the rest of the parshah the narrative is one of manipulation, personal growth, and the beginnings of familial reconciliation. Dramas play out within the family between the patriarch and the many sons, and between Yoseph and his brothers. The most striking aspect of the whole process is the emotional development and exchange of these characters. Simultaneously, we get little to no hint of God throughout. God is evoked only in the speech of the characters and does nothing to intervene or affect the story. Instead we have pure human drama laid bare before us.

Rashi, the 11th century French interpreter of Torah, picked up on this trend as well. He noticed a slight grammatical switch in one line (Gen. 42:3). Rashi noticed that when the brothers decide to go down to Egypt to retrieve food, they are counted separately as Yoseph’s brothers, as opposed to Yaakov’s sons. Rashi sees this as hinting at the fact that each of the brothers had his own personal reaction to the situation due to their own individual relationships with Yoseph. This development of individual characters in their own private relation to their situations shows just how lost in ourselves we can get.

In a way, this is the first time we’re shown the truly individual aspect of human life in the Torah. Although the brothers are together, and Yoseph has his Egyptian helpers, these characters are all shown trapped in their own individual lives. Yoseph can not break character, the brothers individually try different ways to figure out how to work around the series of events orchestrated by Yoseph, and all the while all are struggling with the guilt and hurt of their past actions. This complex interweaving of personal responses to a collective past, from Yoseph’s alienation and hiding from his brothers to his brothers’ confusion and guilt,  is a parallel to our own relationship to Judaism.

In our story today we can see the roots of the conflicts in the Jewish world, be they personal or cultural, within our families and our relations between denominations. Guilt and lack of understanding, and the attempt to hide both of these emotions, pervade all of the conflicts that I have experienced within the contemporary Jewish world. These are the very themes underlying every moment of the drama between Yoseph and his brothers. I have certainly played both the part of the one hiding behind the other culture while trying to tease out the intentions of my more traditional brother, and I have played the role of the traditional element attempting to understand the hidden agenda of my hiding brother.

At the end of this week’s portion very little is resolved, but Yehudah, the brother whose idea it was to sell Yoseph into slavery, accepts responsibility for his brother Binyamin in the face of Yoseph’s demanding him as a slave. This one step into responsibility that ends the Parshah is the beginning of the end of the lies and deceit surrounding the brothers. Yehudah’s step in the right direction, displaying loyalty and the bravery to take responsibility for his brother rather than selling him into slavery, shows us our own path to resolution within our lives. In spite of our differences and the histories we may have, Am Yisrael is a family. It is a family with many facets which often clash and disagree. Today we are just like this first generation of the nation of Israel, Israel’s direct sons who are the main characters of this Torah portion. In this story, they show us that we needn’t agree, or be exactly the same, but that we must be responsible for each other, and have the bravery to display this responsibility. The future of today’s Jewish family has yet to be written, but let us use the example of the sons of Yaakov, the sons of Israel, to reconcile Am Yisrael once again.

Parashat Vayishlah – The Past is Never Behind You

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, is the last act of the story of Yaakov. His

transformation from trickster to prince, as the 11th century French interpreter Rashi puts

it, is central to this parshah. Is it really a transformation, though? Is true transformation

even really possible for us fickle human beings? Yaakov’s story gives a guide to the ways

in which we do and do not change, and most importantly, how we can never truly be free

of our past.

 

Vayishlah begins with Yaakov being confronted with the possibility of seeing his brother

Esav again after many years apart. The last time they met, Yaakov tricked him out of his

birthright and fled in the face of Esav’s death threats. Now, Yaakov is returning to the

land of his father with wealth and a family, and sends gifts to attempt to appease Esav

as still he fears his brother’s wrath. In spite of the many years spent away, marrying two

women, and building a family and a fortune, Yaakov is forced to face his past, embodied

in his brother.

 

Right before Yaakov finally meets with Esav again, a being comes and wrestles with

him through the night. As dawn breaks, and Yaakov is winning, the being tells Yaakov

to let him go. Yaakov refuses to until the being, often thought of in tradition as an angel,

blesses him. The being then renames him Yisrael, proclaiming that it is a symbol of his

successful struggles with men and with the divine.

 

Rashi interprets this name change from Yaakov, with a Hebrew root that is related to

trickery and deceit, to Yisrael, with a Hebrew root related to nobility, as an integral shift

in Yaakov’s character. Furthermore, he interprets the next line, when Yaakov asks the

angel its name and the angel responds, “Why do you ask me my name?” as telling us that

angels, in fact, have no fixed names and that they change according to the mission that

they are on.

 

Angels, then, are bereft of past and future: Their names unfixed, their short-term purposes

defining their very existence. In Jewish tradition humans and angels are often compared

to each other with angels tending to complain about the humans silly choices. Here we

may get a look into why our tradition would hold us up and against the angels. They help

define our relationship to our world and to God by showing us what we aren’t.

If angels are defined specifically for one purpose, with their very identities erased and

changed at their purpose’s completion, we are the exact opposite. The rest of this week’s

Torah portion displays this as Yaakov’s past as a trickster catches up to him in many

different ways. In spite of his attempt to put the past behind him, and to even tell Esav

that stealing the birthright wasn’t particularly beneficial to him anyway, Yaakov’s

children reflect his trickster roots through multiples acts of deceit and trickery.

Looking at Vayishlah from this perspective gives us a peek at our own relationship to our

past and our future. Even if we make changes as drastic as those that Yaakov made, we

can never escape our past. We can even confront our past and attempt to grow beyond the

things we feel are holding us back, but still, we can never truly get rid of them. Unlike

angels, our names don’t change based on our given objective at any individual time. Our

past tails us, ever connected to our present, ever coloring our future. We can strive, and

progress and improve so much that we may warrant a change of name like Yaakov, but

even then we cannot simply detach from our past.

 

Although this may sound like we are trapped the other option is much less attractive.

Without this continual growth and building of history attached to our names our lives

would cease to have the deep meaning we can now derive from them. Without a past to

regard and move forward from we too, like the angels, would be without identity, stuck in

an ever-present now that changed our very essence every time we completed a task. But

this is not the world assigned to us – this is the world, according to the Jewish tradition,

assigned to angels.

 

We are instead gifted with the ability for growth in a long stream of acts and deeds that

define us well after their completion. Interestingly enough, this Torah portion displays

that through Yaakov’s name being changed. But is his name changed? Throughout the

rest of Genesis, the character is still consistently referred to as Yaakov, alongside his new

name Yisrael.

 

As I have grown older, and collected all the more experience and baggage, I’ve found

that the past re-emerges in ways one would never expect. People you believed you would

never see again reappear when least expected, words you let loose into the world come

back to haunt you, and actions you thought would never have any consequence can

return to shift your life’s path entirely. We are not independent agents, floating in an

ever-present now like the angels, defined only by a singular task which upon completion

will wipe out our very identities. Unlike an angel, Yaakov never transformed fully into

Yisrael, but added an extra layer on to his person as he grew and changed. Just like

Yaakov we are growing, evolving, and changing individuals, allowed to experience the

shift from the past to the present to the future, all the while never leaving our past behind

us, but instead continuing to learn and grow from these experiences.

Parashah Toldot: Dysfunction, Redemption and Learning to Swim

The story of Yitzhak and Rivkah’s sons Yaakov and Esav is a compelling and difficult one. In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov , the eventual namesake of the people of Israel, is seen committing some very questionable acts. His brother, Esav, is clearly not the brightest human being, and we see Yaakov tricking him out of all of the inheritance that he believed he was to receive from his father. The first time, Yaakov takes advantage of Esav’s ravenous hunger, and makes him pledge his birthright for a bowl of stew. The second time, under his mother Rivkah’s recommendation and with a great deal of her help, Yaakov tricks his now-blind father into believing that he is Esav coming for his deathbed blessing. Not quite the behavior we’d expect or desire from the person who gave his name to Israel.

 

The name of this week’s parshah is Toldot, or generations in English. Prior to the story of Yaakov and Esav, we are given a narrative of Yitzhak repeating almost exactly his own father Avraham’s ambulations around the land of Canaan. On the same theme, our introduction to the story of Yaakov and Esav is focused on parental favoritism, Yitzhak favoring Esav, and Rivkah favoring Yaakov. When looked at from a zoomed out lens, we see what this parsha is really about – trans-generational relationships.

 

If we accept this as being the main theme of Toldot, then we should take a step back and not just look at condemning Yaakov, but instead figure out what the generational factors here are. It is clear that Rivkah pushes him towards some of his behavior, and it is also quite clear that his father’s affections are showered upon his brother and withheld from him. It’s a common trope today, in our post-Freudian world, to focus on how our parents messed us up, and how our foibles and failings can be traced back to their foibles and failings. Looking at Toldot, we see that this certainly isn’t a new idea.

 

So was this behavior Yaakov’s fault? Was it Yitzhak and Rivkah’s? Even Avraham and Sarah’s? Are our own failings ours, or are they our parents’? The Babylonian Talmud teaches us that a father’s responsibility to his son is “to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim too“ (Kiddushin 29a).

 

The first three responsibilities are the religious traditions of circumcision, redemption of the firstborn from God via paying a Kohen, and teaching Torah, but the last three are quite practical. The Talmud goes on into pages and pages of debating and interpreting what each of these things means, except for the responsibility to teach a child to swim in which there is no debate, only an explanation that “his life may depend on it” (Kiddushin 30b).

 

So it goes with the relationship between parents and children. For every attempt to do the right thing, either by teaching your child correctly, or living up to your parents’ expectations, there is always another way to interpret or debate the outcome. It is always possible to blame yourself for your child’s failings, or take credit for your child’s successes. It is similarly always possible to blame your parents for your failings, or to credit them your successes. In the end, one can never truly know which pieces of their parents’ parenting or their own parenting have affected the eventual outcome. Foresight and hindsight are both almost impossible when attempting to uncover which pieces of these very basic relationships will be highlighted in the future or have colored our lives.

 

I think that we can absolve Yaakov of at least some of his guilt through an acknowledgment of this reality of the relationship between the parent and child. This trickster-like behavior was clearly being taught to him by his mother as a way of gaining the attention and affection of his aloof father. In a way, we can see this parshah as all prelude to the fruition of Yaakov into Yisrael which comes later in Bereishit. By suspending our own judgment we can see the tragedy in the way the portion, which is Yaakov’s entire youth, plays out.

What a child takes from a parent’s attempts at education is out of control of the parent; what a parent does to attempt to educate a child is out of control of the child. In spite of our choices to trick our brothers, push our children to do the wrong thing, or disrespectfully swindle our parents, as we continue to live we gain new chances to do the right thing. The Talmud’s clarity on why it is important to teach your child to swim is clear. In my opinion, though, the swimming that the Talmud is referring to is not simply swimming. It is the knowledge one needs to continue moving forward in the world; to continue receiving the chance to make the right choices that will redeem his or her life. Yaakov’s redemption through his own actions later in the Torah show us that the indiscretion of youth, or the damaging meddling of passive aggressive parents, is not something that stands alone as a root of human development and personality. In Yaakov’s youth and family we can see our own, and in his later redemption we see hope for ourselves and our own families.

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A Love Letter to Spencer Krug

It’s easy to lose track of the fact that art still exists. Like real art. Not just the mass produced stuff that is imminently pleasurable to experience, requiring no reflection. And I’m not trashing today’s true pop art, either. I think that the uproar about Miley Cyrus over the past couple of months has been insane, and she’s legitimately creating excellent pop art. She’s just reflecting that uncomfortable, gender confused, sexual side of young adult culture that rubs those firmly seated in their understanding of what should and should not be the wrong way. But this isn’t what I want to talk about.

It’s rare and lucky when you can find an artist that grows and changes with you. It’s a strange experience, really, to have someone you’ve never met, and really probably never will meet, become an integral part of your life. And not just someone that plays a peripheral role. Someone who continually creates and releases art that matches your temporal and physical location perfectly, telling you that you’re not alone, that someone else out there actually understands the things you’re dealing with so well that they have created a magnificent piece of art that reflects and elucidates it for your perfectly. Spencer Krug has continually done this for me.

Now, I’m not going to deny being an obscurantist, but I will say outright that Spencer Krug deserves a place alongside Fiona Apple, Thom Yorke, Jack White, Beck, and whoever else you can name as the best songwriters and musicians of this era. He just doesn’t write easily digestible pop. He yelps when he sings and drags songs out beyond their proper pop song limits. He does this unapologetically. Somehow, beyond all rights, he knows that he can do this and continues to do it. I have no idea where this bravery and self confidence comes from, but he has it. This also seems to be why he unflinchingly moves his music to different places, incorporating and decorporating the least expected aspects whenever his projects become habitual. He mutates his habits and expectations so well that he named his first solo album “Organ Music, Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped.”

It’s easy to assume musicians like him are purposely oblique and hiding behind whatever smokescreen of effete culture they can throw up, but I’m convinced Krug doesn’t do this. His newest album, “Julia With Blue Jeans On,” proves this. Ignoring the title that I immediately found repellant, I gave it a listen. It is the kind of music that kept me awake because it would not leave my head. And not in the Raffi way, but in the way that my brain simply couldn’t let me ignore the importance of what I was being gifted. This is the nature of Krug’s music – you listen to it once or twice and your interest is piqued, and then after the tenth, twentieth listen, you realize you had never really heard it.

This most recent album is one that is unrelentingly simple. He did this on purpose – boiling down his complex musical past into just him and a piano. He sings about love, and Noah, and what it even means to be human, acknowledging every frailty that we all try to ignore. He makes it okay for me  to acknowledge this frailty in myself. He mourns it, he deprecates it, and he celebrates it.

Today we’re all constantly confronted with the complexity of the outside world. Our uninterrupted connection to the ceaseless flow of information from all around the world tears us away from our present, causing us to think of and focus on all of the things going on beyond us. Simultaneously, we must react by turning inside, trying to figure out how we can possibly, individually confront our own responses to these overwhelming stimuli. Spencer Krug’s new album invites us to forget all of this, invites us to look at where and who we are in our present circumstances, and to take it seriously. It invites us to look at those around us and to take them seriously as well, without relegating them to the same realm of outside as the war in Syria and the neverending financial crisis. Take the moment, the hour, to listen to and think about what he’s trying to tell us. It’s worth every penny, because it isn’t just an hour of music. It’s a well bored into our contemporary culture, releasing the pieces of our experience and humanity that there doesn’t seem to be time to visit anymore.

Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On

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Vayeira: We Reflect God, and God Reflects Us

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, holds many well known and central stories of the Jewish people. The angels visiting Avraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Binding of Yitzhak, are all in this one division of Genesis. Literal tomes have been written on each segment of each of the stories that comprise this portion. Usually, we talk about what we can learn from the behaviors of the characters in these stories. Avraham and Sarah’s hospitality for the angels, Avraham’s bravery in arguing for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah, the many difficulties of the binding of Yitzhak – much ink has been spilled using these stories as examples for our own behavior.

Our sages of the past saw that these stories all have a very strong theme in common: God’s relationship to humankind. The human characters interact directly with divine beings, be they angels or God. This is a real rarity in the narratives of the Tanakh, and I’d imagine it was for this reason that our classical interpreters of the text focused on this so intently. Rashi, arguably the most important interpreter of Jewish sacred text, who lived in the first and second century of the second millennium CE in France, focused his interpretation of the story of Avraham’s hospitality towards the strangers (who turn out to be angels of God) on the way that God and the angels reacted to this behavior. His conclusions are quite striking.

In this story, three strangers are walking through the desert when Avraham spots them, runs over to them, and invites them to his tent to relax and eat. Lo and behold, these three strangers turn out to be messengers of God. According to Rashi, the angels and God saw Avraham’s behavior, and their immediate response was to mimic it. In Rashi’s understanding, God later mimics Avraham’s sending of water to them via a messenger, when God sends water via a miracle to the Israelites in the desert much later in the Exodus story.

If we assume that the writers of these texts were trying to reveal a truth about our place in the world and our relationship to God through a story, and that Rashi was also attempting to accomplish the same, we can come away with a very interesting and complex understanding of our relationship to the divine. Most conceptions of the divine are extraordinarily hierarchical. Divinity is above, and we are below. We are at the mercy of God or gods, mere mortals living out small lives. If, instead, we see the relationship carrying some mutuality, as it is apparent that Rashi did, the hierarchy gets turned on its Rashi isn’t just pointing out some similarities between Avraham’s hospitality and God’s. In his interpretation, Rashi is showing us something much more intrinsic to our relationship to the divine. Not only are we reliant upon the divine for what we need (for example, during this visit to Avraham, the angels announce the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah, and the imminent arrival of the new baby Yitzhak), but the divine reflects our own actions back to us. Avraham, consistently cited by those who came after him as the lifeline to God, affected the continuity of his offspring, and ultimately the successful formation of the people of Israel, by displaying his magnanimity to the angels. God reflected this behavior back to the Israelites by gifting them with water in their time of need, while wandering the desert during the formative stage of the newly free Israelite people.

Instead of looking at this text as a mythological narrative simply attempting to explain the roots of chosenness of the Jewish people, which this miraculous birth is so often cited as, maybe we should try to apply these lessons in our own lives. Throughout our liturgy and our history, and actually throughout the rest of the Tanakh from this point on, it has been the tradition to invoke God’s special relationship with Avraham whenever seeking something from God. Traditionally, the deeply troubling story of the binding of Yitzhak is even recited during Jewish morning worship as a way to attempt to convince God of our worth, based entirely on Avraham’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Maybe, instead of just citing Avraham’s deeds as rationale for our own worth, we should instead look at what the story is trying to tell us about his deeds, and why they are special at all.

Rashi’s interpretation of the story hints to us that human actions of kindness reverberate throughout time. By citing this one instance of Avraham’s kindness as the impetus behind God having provided the Israelites, the many generations later grandchildren of Avraham, with the miraculous water that sustained them in the desert, Rashi is telling us that our own acts are similarly important. Were it not for Avraham’s kindness, the Israelites never would have made it into the Promised Land, and we wouldn’t be here to discuss the outcomes. God’s reflection of Avraham’s behavior was the linchpin on which the Israelites’ future hung. By using this example to pattern our own behavior, by viewing our actions as reverberating throughout history as the mutual relationship between us and God, forged initially by Avraham and renewed by every one of us, we can be guided by our tradition towards lives of great meaning. Each action we take can be viewed as having endless consequences based on the value of our works. Rashi and our Torah beseech us to view Avraham not only as the pillar of righteousness that our tradition rests upon, but also as the exemplar for us all to follow to build our own lives into similar pillars of righteousness for the generations to come.

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Everything Is Amazing and Nobody is Happy

This week’s Torah portion is easily one of the most famous. Everyone knows the general

outline – God tells Noah that he’s going to destroy the world which has become corrupted

beyond redemption, and Noah needs to build an ark to save himself, his family, and all of

the animals of the world. When learning this story, from a young age on, we’re taught to

identify with Noah, the most righteous of his generation. So what was so wrong with this

generation that a guy like Noah, who didn’t even bother to warn his fellow humans of the

impending doom, was the most righteous?

 

One of the explanations our ancient sages gave us in the Talmud was that this generation

had become haughty because of the goodness that God showered upon them (Sanhedrin,

108b). Citing the book of Job to describe these wicked people the Talmudic baraita goes

on to say that they enjoyed so much abundance and such great wealth that they came

to believe that they didn’t need God for anything at all. This wicked generation enjoyed

extremely long lives in which they were never lacking in food or pleasures, music was

always readily at hand, and their children danced.

 

A few years ago, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., was on Conan O’Brien’s

talk show and pointed out some pretty clear truths about today’s generation. The general

theme of his interview was that, today, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. His

most clear elucidation of this theme is the fact that people complain about their cellphone

reception not being strong enough to surf the internet, without considering the fact that

the signal has to go all the way up to outer space and back. Similarly, a few generations

ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a piece of equipment like a modern day

smartphone be available for nearly everyone.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about these things; with modern conveniences

come modern inconveniences. I also must admit that in comparison to the early rabbis of

around 1800 years ago who wrote the baraita quoted above, my life has so far matched

their description of the generation of the flood to a tee. I have certainly been quite lucky

in my life, but I would also say that the majority of my friends in the Jewish world

have had similar luck. If we are like Louis C.K. says and absurdly taking the wonders

of our world for granted, are we then mirroring the generation of the flood? Are we

similarly devoid of thanks to God, losing our ability to see the wonders in what is now

our everyday life? In short, should someone start building an ark?

 

Well, I think an ark might be a bit much, but there’s another clear alternative: Let’s be

more thankful. But thankful to whom? The second problem of the generation of the Flood

according to the baraita, that of casting God off, is another struggle that we face today.

One of the greatest issues in Modern Judaism is with the conception of God. We are so

often confronted with ideas and conceptions of God that are inherently contradictory

to a modern, scientific mindset that it is sometimes quite difficult to conceive of fully

believing in a God. It is especially difficult to believe in one that has the power to flood

the entire earth, but needs a human being to build an ark to save a remnant of inhabitants.

This is not a reason to dismiss the whole concept of a higher power, though, but instead

a challenge to the conception we have of our rational sensibilities to fully understand

our reality. The critique of thanklessness found in both the Talmud and Louis C.K. is a

similar challenge. Although we may have cast aside the idea of a man in the sky pulling

strings and deciding upon punishment and reward, at the very least we can marvel at the

wonders of nature, human ingenuity, and sheer beauty in the world around us. If just that

spark of wonder can be fanned, thankfulness for these phenomena will surely follow.

Luckily our tradition has a built in mechanism for reminding us of the wonders of our

life. The Jewish practice of reciting blessings is designed specifically to orient us towards

acknowledgment of the wondrous goings on around us. The morning prayer sequence in

particular (shaharit) is designed to start our day by thanking God for returning our souls

to a working body, along with giving us all of the things we need, from sight to physical

flexibility to consciousness, to go about our day.

 

It seems unlikely that we are heading towards another great destruction akin to that of

the story of Noah. Even if we don’t actually face a doom that necessitates an ark, we can

certainly take something away from the commentary of our rabbinic tradition. If mere

haughty thanklessness in a time of great plenty was thought of as enough to warrant utter

destruction, we ought to take this into account. In fact, if we read Noah’s collection of all

of the creatures of creation as an acknowledgment of the many various wonders of the

world, instead of as a literal gathering of the species onto a boat, we even find the answer

to the problem right in the story. Acknowledging the wonders of our daily life, and our

lack of control or full understanding of these wonders, is something we can all benefit

from. It brings a sense of awe to the everyday that can enrich even the most banal of

moments when utilized correctly. If this is the way that Noah became the most righteous

in his generation, let us all strive for such righteousness!

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Long Division, or, Happy 5774!

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Rosh haShanah, the Jewish New Year, ended tonight with the beginning of Shabbat. Although there are many meanings behind Rosh haShanah, the one most often cited is that of the commemoration of the creation of the universe. From the get-go, from Genesis 1, we see that God created by dividing. Dark from light, night from day, eventually woman from man, the unraveling of Biblical creation was a series of separations. The ability of God to create through division that is pictured in Genesis is quite different from the human attempts at mimicry, and quite different from the spectrum of light and dark, night and day, male and female, that we actually see in our world. In Judaism today, the mehitza is one of the most central and controversial forms of separation.

The mehitza is a clear symbol of separation in traditional Judaism. Reform Judaism did away with it long ago, as did Conservative Judaism, but even the most progressive of Orthodox synagogues will still have one. Gender separation has been a big talking point in Jerusalem lately as the Women of the Wall have gained critical mass. One of my colleagues and friends here has pointed out something very interesting about the Women of the Wall movement. They aren’t asking for desegregation. They are asking for separate but equal status.

Separate but equal comes with some serious social baggage in the American parlance, but in this situation it is a different concept. When we look at the mehitza, or the concept of gender separation as a symbolic, ritual method of signifying holiness, Western Liberal bias against segregation of any kind runs into a non-rational roadblock. In fact, this is a prominent locus of the inner conflict of progressive Judaism. Attempting to adapt a tradition so defined by its use of separation and division to the Enlightenment values of equality and universalism is a real challenge, and one we haven’t really dealt with head on. Instead, we attempt to circumvent the challenge by focusing on other aspects of the tradition, while eschewing the traditions most clearly representing this separation of categories, such as keeping kosher, wearing symbols that separate us as Jews from the rest of humanity, and the abstentions of Shabbat that would keep us from participating in non-Jewish society.

The issue of division, and clear, contrasted separate parts, is one that has arisen throughout my experience so far in Jerusalem. What is my Judaism and that of the school I am attending? Or of those whom I am attending school with? Or of the city I am residing in? Is the identity that I have formed throughout my life ending, and a new identity of future rabbi beginning? Due to the centrality of these questions in the future that I am hurtling towards this Rosh haShanah has taken on much greater significance than it has in the past.

This evening in Jerusalem I went to an egalitarian Orthodox community for Shabbat, one which is quite interestingly very popular amongst my classmates. I’ve been a few times before and every time the mehitza has been a distraction for me. Not only is it alien for me to be praying amongst only men, but the nature of something being hidden purposely from me, even if it is only by a translucent cloth barrier, calls my attention to it. Simultaneously, the effect of the separated singing, with voices eventually blending in the shared air, has a distinctily different effect than both genders singing together. I’m no expert at acoustics, but the different tones divided by location caused the eventual mixture to be not only more discordant, but jarring. Although this may not have been the intention there is also a sense of competition between the two sides. Inevitably, and usually only momentarily, the two sides would reach a balance and meet perfectly. The outcome is beautiful and brilliant. This is the nature of the conflict between unity and division. The contrast of disunity with unity only highlights the beauty of the eventual combination. A perfect medium is a beautiful thing, but at what cost do we divide in the first place?

The nature of our material reality makes it impossible for us to divide cleanly. Our lives are made up of a spectrum of grays, not the divisions attempted by those who would have things be pure and impure, kosher and unkosher, holy and unholy. But we must divide. To remember our lives, we divide our experiences by dates, times, as relative to one another, as formative or not. The most sacred moments in our Jewish lives mark divisions: being named at 8 days as a division from nascent being to full humanity, becoming bar or bat mitzvah as a division between irresponsibility and full responsibility, marriage as a commitment to blurring the division between yourself and another while dividing the new pair from the rest of the community, and the rituals of death, the most clear divider of all. These lifecycle events are things often outside of our control. At a certain point a baby must be considered human. Around puberty it is fair to start making a young adult responsible for themselves. Although marriage is not for everyone, for those who find meaning in it marriage is something beyond rationality – a desire to form a link to another person so beloved that you feel you must continue forward as one. And you know how the saying goes: death and taxes. The perception of these things being out of our control make them much easier to swallow.

Another commandment that is at first glance beyond rationality is that of the blowing of the shofar on Rosh haShanah, an act of marking the division of the inevitable new year. Another of my friends and colleagues at rabbinical school recently pointed out that the Hebrew root for the word “shofar” (שפר) tends to be related to the goodness of something, or to the action of making something better (לשפר). Alongside this, breaking the word up into a prefix along with a word can also mean that which divides ([ש-פר[ר). If we combine these multiple meanings of the word shofar, and look at them in light of the creation of the universe in Genesis which is also being celebrated on Rosh haShanah, our tradition gives us an excellent guideline for how best to create through division.

God’s reaction after dividing each piece of our universe is to reflect on this creation and to say, “this is very good.” Division was done for the sake of creating a better reality. The shofar beckons is to do the same. We must continue moving forward, and the shofar proclaims this loud and clear: The New Year is here! But hidden within the very name of the shofar is the true intention – to separate from the past by improving, by finding the good and doing more of it. Rosh haShanah gives us the chance to separate and our own lives each year, and to take forward with us that which is good. When we are done with this year, I hope we are all able to say “this is very good.”

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What do Kanye West and Jerusalem have in common?

So, I’ve just about completed my first week in Jerusalem. As all first-year students of HUC-JIR must, I packed up and headed off to begin my studies at the campus in Jerusalem. As not all first-year students of HUC-JIR must, I said goodbye to my wife, as the clear impracticality of both of us being unemployed and living in a foreign country for a year, and HUC-JIR’s staunch stance on all students attending this first year in Israel program, made it impossible for us to be together.

This is clearly a challenge. And in my way of looking at the world unavoidable challenges are the ones that provide the most dear and important lessons. There’s an added level of challenge to it in that it feels like I am circling back on the past. I was in school in Jerusalem about 8 years ago for six months, after a six month stint in Beer Sheva. I’ve been through countless academic programs designed to bond me with my classmates, impress a lasting narrative on me about whatever institution I was attending at the time, many which attempted to weave a broad tapestry of Jewish history all rooted in the land of Israel. Some things worked, some things didn’t; some things I took, some I left. This time around, though, picking up and moving to a new place for a new experience has an added level of sadness in leaving behind my wife, friends, and other family in the states.

I still have no earthly idea what lesson is being provided to me by my being separated from my wife for a year, but I hope it will become clear over time. In fact, Kanye West has provided me with ample reason to believe that one day, no matter how much I hate the fact right now that I am separate from my wife, I will maybe see some value in it.

Up until the past few weeks I hated Kanye. Like, really hated him. I could always acknowledge his talent, but couldn’t get past the revulsion he elicited in me through all of his overwrought claims of genius and sprawling acts of needless spotlight grabbing. When his newest album, Yeezus, came out, though, I gave him another shot.

I have never been able to get into hip hop despite many attempts both on my own and by friends. Yeezus is full of everything I hate about hip hop: Misogyny, self-aggrandizement, glorification of all things hedonistic. But its sound, its flow, its structure, and even its lyrics immediately got their hooks into my soul. I can’t explain it. I spent weeks trying to figure out if I had been wrong all along, if Kanye has just been a Russell Brand-style genius this whole time, putting on a show to lampoon the very culture he is representing. I began constructing elaborate theories of Yeezus as a concept album, charting the rise, fall, and redemption of a hip-hop star. I started convincing myself that Kanye was, in fact, not only obscenely talented musically, but a full-on genius. Then I read his New York Times interview where he proclaimed himself the new Steve Jobs (what?!), and realized I was making more of it than was there. It’s certainly a brilliant album, but Kanye isn’t any more self aware than I gave him credit for before the release of Yeezus. For some reason, this time around, Kanye hit the right chord at the right time for me and I got hooked.

So it’s all a matter of perspective and timing.  We work in cycles, our lives travel paths that spiral around a center point, not simple straight lines. It’s just like the Torah. We have been reading the same stories for millennia, but continue deriving new meaning from them. Throughout our lives, we may get second, and even third chances to learn from these same lessons. Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, is actually just a repetition of all of the stuff that just happened in the Torah so far; A moment for reflection before charging forward into the last book of the cycle of the Torah reading

It took Yeezus for me to really get Kanye’s greatness, but just because I missed it before didn’t mean that I had completely gotten the guy wrong. I needed to keep trying, in different times and contexts, to “get it.” He’s still just as much of an attention seeking idiot as I ever thought he was, and I don’t think there’s some grand narrative behind Yeezus that makes it a brilliant, scathing critique of the culture it was born from. I do think it’s an unbelievably well made work of art, though. Had I not given him another shot, I would have missed out on the whole thing. The lessons here are already learned: Just because I was wrong about one side of him doesn’t mean I was wrong about all of him, and just because you’re a genius at one thing doesn’t mean you’re a genius at all things.

Maybe it will take this whole year in Israel for me to lock down the lesson I’m not even fully aware exists yet. If there were ever a place to help create the kind of cognitive dissonance that would crack open the filters through which I process my reality, it’s certainly Jerusalem.  The wild contrast of sacred and profane, the old and the new, is everywhere. For instance, today’s women of the wall Rosh Hodesh service that was turned back by thousands of orthodox seminarian women and Ultra-orthodox men is just mind boggling when considered alongside the modern Western trappings of much of the city. The constant dissonance of Jerusalem certainly provides an excellent spot to place someone who needs a good shaking up. Hopefully, like with Yeezus, I’ll gain something that brings me great joy from a source I don’t expect. I think we could all probably take this week’s parashat as a cue to rethink some things that we are already certain we understand and are familiar with. Never hurts to try!

Faith and Grace in Judaism

This weeks Torah portion, Tazriah-Metzorah, continues the theme of structure that pervades the Priestly literature. An obsession with order is the central concern of all of these pieces of ritual legislation, and this week we dive into purity associated with bodies. The priests are commanded to diagnose and treat a couple of different skin conditions, along with similar conditions afflicting buildings, and how to deal with all kinds of other fun things like genital discharge and menstruation. As I wrote last year, this was my bar mitzvah torah portion. It’s not much easier to write about now than it was then.

Mining meaning from Torah portions is really an act of faith. Judaism often balks at the topic of faith, but in my opinion, faith is a huge portion of our religion. For Christians, faith in Christ as the eternal savior and redeemer is central. For Jews, though, faith is an entirely different construct. Faith in God has been tough for us since the get go. Heck, one of the etymologies for Israel is to struggle with God. To struggle with the concept of God is inherent to the religion. Faith is not focused in the supernatural for Jews. We learned long ago that we don’t really understand and certainly can’t control whatever supernatural powers are out there. Faith in tradition is our cornerstone.

Faith in tradition doesn’t mean that one must believe that our texts are handed down from on high. In fact, I believe that does us a disservice. Our texts were never something to be accepted as directly perfect revelation for simple, easy human understanding. They are to be read, poured over, debated, critiqued. They are to be put through the cognitive grinder in an attempt to distill them, and that takes a lot of work and devotion. In fact, faith in the texts is only really upheld by the grace of their abilities to withstand the tests of time and to continue to transmit meaning to those who attempt to distill it.

Delving into Jewish text, be it Torah, Tanach, Talmud,Midrash, or even a Siddur, is actually very much like the ritual prescribed in this weeks portion.

Leviticus 14:

God said to Moses, “This is to be the law concerning the person afflicted with tzara‘at (a skin disease) on the day of his purification. He is to be brought to the cohen, and the cohen is to go outside the camp and examine him there. If he sees that the tzara‘at sores have been healed in the afflicted person, then the cohen will order that two living clean birds be taken for the one to be purified, along with cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop leaves. The cohen is to order one of the birds slaughtered in a clay pot over running water. As for the live bird, he is to take it with the cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird slaughtered over running water, and sprinkle the person to be purified from the tzara‘at seven times. Next he is to set the live bird free in an open field. He who is to be purified must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water. Then he will be clean; and after that, he may enter the camp; but he must live outside his tent for seven days. 9

It is kind of a troubling ritual, especially for the two birds. But in a way it’s also quite beautiful. One bird is sacrificed, and the other acts as a kind of  homeopathic magical surrogate for the person recovering from the skin disease. Faith in sacrificing the one bird, while setting the other bird free, carrying a magical concoction on with it, is quite similar to faith in these ancient texts to help clarify the still entirely confounding world thousands of years on.

As one devotes his or her time, ultimately our most precious commodity as it is the quantifiable measurement of our lives, to studying these texts, one sacrifices all other possible uses of the time with faith that the tradition will help to free us from whatever bindings we are being tied down by. These bindings may be simple human limitations, such as needing a framework for which to understand our lives, or just the limiting nature of our current, disenchanted material reality. The time spent reading our tradition’s stories and writings is not just an act of sacrifice and devotion to God, it is an act of sacrifice and devotion to the composers, compilers, editors, translators, and interpreters that came before us. We bathe our minds and spirits in these texts and traditions in hope of being set free. May it be that we, like the bird allowed to live on anointed by the sacrifice of its friend, are set free by the sacrifices of those who approached our tradition with faith in its grace to help guide our lives, and transmitted their findings to us in the faith that we would continue the process.

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