Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bereshit 5771 - Can Entropy Be Reversed?

(Originally delivered on October 2, 2010.)

And so it begins again: Bereshit bara elohim. “In the beginning God created,” or “When God began to create...” or “At the beginning of God’s creating of heaven and earth,” depending on your translation. And, on the first day, Yehi or, “Let there be light.”

Once upon a time, I was a voracious reader of science fiction. The beginning of the Torah always reminds me of a short story by Isaac Asimov, written in 1956, called “The Last Question.” It is a series of vignettes about how successive generations of people ask successively bigger and more complex computers the question, “Can the entropy of the universe be reversed?”

Entropy is a measure of disorder. It’s the scientific term for a mess. When Hannah and Zev pull all of their toys off the shelves in our living room and scatter them about the floor, the entropy of the room increases.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that entropy in a closed system always increases. Our universe is a closed system, and so the disorder of the universe, the entropy, always increases, and this can never be reversed, so that at some distant time in the future, all of the structure of the universe will cease to exist, and chaos will be complete.

So in the Asimov story, each time the question about entropy is asked, the computers return the same answer: “There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”

At the end of the story, the final, most comprehensive, most transcendent computer is asked the question, and, realizing that all possible data has been collected, determines how to reverse entropy, and says, “Let there be light.” And there was light.

I will come back to entropy in a moment.

* * *

Just before Sukkot, I attended a fundraiser for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. One of the speakers was an Israeli who, during reserve service in Lebanon in 2006, was caught in a car that was hit by a missile, courtesy of Hizballah. He was burned from head to toe, and was initially taken for dead, but managed to survive. His presentation was tragic, graphic, and he delivered it with subtle humor and an elegant touch.

Now I am supportive of the work that FIDF does, and this former soldier’s story was quite moving.

However, it also included slides of him in the hospital, recuperating from the burns that covered his body and the shrapnel that tore holes in his flesh. It was designed to shock. We are apparently so inured to everything, so apathetic, that the only way that anybody can listen long enough is if we present a grave threat, a serious danger, or graphic violence. It’s kind of like television news. You know, if it bleeds, it leads.

I have tried softer approaches to the message I am about to deliver. Now, please permit me to shock you.

I have been here for three years now. In that time, I have officiated at:

3 beritot milah (including that of my own son)
2 baby namings
9 weddings
at least 26 funerals.

Now, one might be able to explain these figures away by pointing out that more people are involved with synagogues and/or rabbis later in life, skewing the results. Also, more people require a rabbi’s service in times of death; not everybody holds a traditional baby naming, for example, and the rabbi is optional at a Berit Milah. And of course, nearly half of all marriages involving American Jews include one non-Jewish partner, and I cannot officiate at such marriages.

Sometimes, though, I worry about the future of American Jewry. Will the forces of entropy drag us down, or will we overcome them?

Here are a few other items that have caught my attention in recent weeks:

Item 1.

As some of you may recall, I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the key role that the Youth House plays in building our Jewish future, about making actively Jewish adults.

Two weeks ago, a Youth House parent reacted to the sermon by telling me that many parents prioritize their children’s activities based on what will get them into good colleges, and that if I want kids to come to the Youth House, I have to demonstrate the value of attending. What do they get out of it?

Effectively, what he was asking was, I want my child to go to a good school. How will the Youth House help him do so? Is it worth the investment of money and time?

Item 2.

During the High Holidays, there were hundreds of children in and about this building. Many went into the various age-appropriate services that were offered for them. Many, and especially those older than 13, did not. There were, I hear, plenty of teens in the parking lot, playing in the playground, glued to the screen of their electronic devices, and so forth.

Two of the members of the Youth House staff, our Youth Director Joe Pearlman and our Religious Activities Director Itamar Futterman, approached some of these teens to try to get them to come into the teen service that they hosted in the Youth House. And the reactions they got were variations of, “No, way. I’m not going in there. You’ve got to be kidding me,” and so forth.

Now, just a look around this room will show you how strong this community is. We can be comfortable with how many people are here today in services, or even how many come on a Shabbat morning without a bar or bat mitzvah. Even last Thursday, the first day of Sukkot, many members of this community, including many young children were here, joining together in the festival tefillot.

But I am a little bit more concerned about our teenagers, those between the ages of 13 and 18. Where are they?

I am happy that Aaron and Eric are two boys (now men!) whose families are heavily involved with Temple Israel, and who have a positive involvement with and attitude towards Judaism, Jewish life, and the synagogue. I am also certain that I will see them both around this building frequently in the coming years.

But about 50 children ascend this bimah every year to demonstrate their capability in reading Torah and Haftarah, and sharing with us the words of divrei Torah that they have crafted themselves.

And many of them, I rarely see again. Teens that I have worked with, that I have exchanged words of Torah with, that I have established a bond with. Teenagers from whom I have learned many new ways to understand our tradition. And that saddens me.

I read a great article in the NY Times about a week ago. It was about how parents often worry about precisely the wrong things: that is, they worry about perceived dangers that are violent, and not about the more subtle, less sensationalized dangers.

For example, many parents do not let their child wait for the school bus outside alone, for fear of abduction by strangers, which affects only about 100 children each year in the entire country. But few seem concerned with the poor diet and lack of exercise that has driven up childhood obesity rates. Nearly 1 in 5 children today are obese.

Well, here is something that some of us have not thought of. While some of us are very concerned with getting our children into college, some of us are pushing Jewish life out the window in favor of a myriad of other activities.

Let me tell you all something, my friends: your child or grandchild will, most likely, not grow up to become a star athlete or the first violin chair of the NY Philharmonic or the next Kristin Chenoweth. But he or she WILL be an adult Jew, one who will (God willing) be a part of a Jewish community, and perhaps raise a Jewish family as well. And that is why they need to be here now. Not in the parking lot. Not at basketball practice. Here, at Temple Israel, on Shabbat morning, and if not sitting next to you then at least sharing it with their peers at the Youth House or Junior Congregation or Morah Ronnie Katz’ toddler service.

Adam and Eve were forced out of Paradise. It might be interesting to argue over whose fault this is, but the salient feature is this: this nation, with its vast wealth, religious freedom and tolerance, and infinite choice in all matters was Paradise to our immigrant forbears. But it will soon cease to be Gan Eden if our grandchildren have no connection to the ancient mass of wisdom known as Judaism.

Our entropy increases.

The good news is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics has a workaround. Entropy may be reversed if you put some work into the system. My living room is not exactly a closed system, but it seems that the only way that I can restore order is if I pick up Hannah and Zev’s toys and put them back on the shelf. And that is precisely what we need to do.

I am working hard this year to make sure that the Youth House is appealing to teens, that it provides serious, intellectually stimulating content coupled with fun social events. Our Fall Retreat Shabbaton, next weekend, will do exactly that, and it is also open to all in grades 8-12, even if your teen is not enrolled at the Youth House. And did I mention that I am personally leading a trip to Israel for teenagers in February? It’s also open to everybody in grades 8-12.

And of course we all want the best for our children. We want the best opportunities, the best college, the brightest future. Continuing Jewish education through high school and, for that matter, university and adulthood, can be a part of that picture, ensuring the most brilliant, dazzling future for all of us. No college admissions officer will look down on time spent learning the texts of our rich, literary tradition.

Two weeks ago, when tornados blasted through Brooklyn and Queens, the power went out in the Youth House about 20 minutes before the end of classes. We brought all the students downstairs, and, in the dark, Itamar led us all in an activity in which students passed a roll of toilet paper from person to person, telling each other about themselves. It was the first opportunity of the year for the entire student body, from grades 7 to 11, to get to know each other, albeit in unusual circumstances. Two days before Yom Kippur, just before our annual bout of introspection and teshuvah, Vayehi or. And there was light.

Let us work in partnership to form stronger Jewish identities in our teenagers and imbue them with a love of Torah, avodah (serving God), and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness), I need the commitment of parents who are willing to put the work into this system. Join with me for the Jewish future.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur 5771 - Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In

(Originally delivered on September 18, 2010.)

Do you own an iPod (or other mp3 player)? Seemingly miraculous, deeply personal, and fundamentally impulse-driven, the iPod is the quintessential device of today.

Judaism, however, and particularly Conservative Judaism, faces numerous challenges in the age of the iPod. To wit:

1. Everything on your iPod is instantly available. On the other hand, being actively Jewish, requires years of study and learning and commitment to Jewish life.

2. Everything on your iPod can be deleted just as easily as it was acquired. As such, we have infinite control over our devices, making them exactly what we want. Hence the “I”. But Judaism, even modern, progressive, non-Orthodox Judaism, has rules, principles, and customs which cannot be simply “deleted.”

As we become more and more integrated into this instant-access, infinitely changeable digital world, the challenge is this: How will we ensure that we have Jewish great-grandchildren? What makes us Jewish, and what will keep us Jewish?

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about being actively Jewish, as opposed to being Jewish by default, and I highlighted Temple Israel’s Youth House as a place where active Jews are made.

Today I will speak primarily about what will keep us Jewish.

At the end of the Musaf service on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, which fell on Friday, I mentioned that the next day, Saturday, was the “2nd holiest day of the year.” As I was shaking hands on the way out, I was asked by more than one person, “Rabbi, what’s tomorrow? Is it really the 2nd holiest day of the year?”

So I need to clarify: the holiest day of the Jewish year is Yom Kippur. It’s today. In second place, there is a 52-way tie: the second holiest day of the year is Shabbat, which, fortunately for us, comes up every 7 days.

The German-Israeli religious philosopher and educator Ernst Simon used to tell a story of his teacher, the pre-eminent modern Jewish thinker Martin Buber. Simon was shomer Shabbat, meaning that he kept all of the Shabbat traditions – not cooking, not spending money, going to the synagogue, and so forth. Buber, like many Reform Jews, thought that the more arcane aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) were unnecessary, and would make fun of Simon for keeping these rules.

It happened once that Simon had guests for Friday night dinner, and the phone rang. Now, he ordinarily would not answer the phone on Shabbat, but it keeps ringing and ringing. Thinking it must be an emergency, he finally picks up the phone. He hears a taunting voice say, “Shabbes!” and *click*.

Simon returns to the Shabbat table. His guests ask him if everything is OK, and who was on the phone? Simon says, “Oh, that was just Buber.”

One good answer to the question, “What will keep us Jewish” may be found in the words of Ahad ha-Am, the early Zionist thinker who was an advocate of Israel as the cultural homeland of the Jews: “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Now you might be afraid that I am going to lecture you now on all the things that you should do or not do on the Shabbat, the 39 categories of prohibited types of work identified by the rabbis in the Mishnah. But I am not going to do that. Rather, I am going to advocate for something a little less daunting.

Who here has ever felt lost without a cellphone?

Who here gets nervous without Internet access?

Do you get the shakes if you don’t know where your electronic gadgets are?

Who here has found themselves searching desperately for a WiFi signal, and been frustrated by somebody's well-meaning, but clearly misguided security code?

I must confess that all of the above has happened to me. Like many of us, I am a slave to technology - the devices run my life; they sometimes feel like disconnected limbs of my body, or perhaps an external lobe of my cerebral cortex.

We are living in the age of connection, a time when being off the grid is next to impossible. Our friends, relatives, and, most perniciously, our workplaces expect us to be available 24-7 - constantly connected, constantly ready to hit reply.

Well, you know what? This cannot be good for us. Is this the end of personal time? Will we ever be truly “alone” again? Will we ever have moments of uninterrupted reflection?

Now, there are some of us that thrive on this. Who here knows their Myers-Briggs type? This is a basic psychological evaluation that gives you a score on four basic scales of personality traits. Statistically speaking, about half of us are Extroverts (or perhaps more, since we ARE Jewish!); that is, we thrive on interaction and get our energy from spending time with and talking with others. When Extroverts are alone, they tend to pull out their cellphone and see who they can reach. As for the Introverts among us, well, we may like staying in touch, but we are more likely to read the newspaper or fire up our iPod and read the updates on our NYTimes app than make phone calls.

But whether you like being connected or not, new research is pointing to the fact that our infinite connectivity is not good for us. There has been a series of articles in the New York Times regarding technology’s effects on us, and the results are not good.

For example, the director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse reports that “Technology is rewiring our brains.” Constantly checking our email, for example, causes regular squirts of dopamine in our brains, and this naturally-occurring brain stimulant can be addictive, making us want to keep checking that email or Twitter or Facebook updates.

Multitasking, while thought by some to be a more efficient way of working, is actually causing us to lose the ability to focus, and shut out irrelevant information. And the constant distractions of text messages, mobile phone calls, and email is producing more stress.

So that’s the bad news. And here is the good news: we have the ability to turn them off. And especially as Jews - we even have a day that pops up every seventh day on which it makes special, holy sense to disconnect, a day so set-aside from the rest of the week (and the rest of the year) that it is only eclipsed by Yom Kippur in its special-ness.

There is a debate in the Talmud about the following: if you are alone in a desert and you have lost track of the day of the week (and you have no mobile phone), when should you celebrate Shabbat? One rabbi proposes that you should start counting off days, and when you get to seven you should observe the Shabbat. A second opinion says that you should assume the current day is Friday and observe the Shabbat on the next day. Why should you wait?

The fourth commandment of the “Top Ten” is the longest of them all “Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho.” Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. And then it goes on for a while. And you know why? Because it is the most important social innovation in the Torah. The ancient Israelites pioneered a concept that no society before it had developed: a day off. Yes, yes, it’s also important not to murder and to honor your parents, but other societies already knew that. The Shabbat, at the time that it was given to us, was apparently unique.

In his critique of contemporary Judaism and Jewish institutions called Nothing Sacred, author Douglas Rushkoff points to the Shabbat as the natural response of an enslaved people who had been set free. Think of it this way: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. They gain their freedom. They know that they still have to work, but on more reasonable terms. So they negotiate themselves one day off out of every seven. Not bad, right?

It is the most revolutionary concept of the ancient world, and holds sway over much of the Earth’s population today: the idea of sanctifying time by setting it apart from the rest of the week. God gives the Israelites a weekly vacation. The Apostle Paul, who fashions Christianity, and Muhammad, who creates Islam, dispose of many parts of the Jewish template that they draw on, but they keep the Shabbat. It is progressive, humanistic, and difficult to argue against.

I was asked recently, as a corollary to the ongoing flap about the Muslim JCC that is planned for Lower Manhattan, if Judaism considers Ground Zero a holy site. I answered no, because with only one possible exception, we do not really have holy sites. We only have holy times. In his classic work, The Sabbath, a slim volume very much worth reading, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, (slow and loud!) “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to the moment; it is the moment that lends significance to the thing.”

In other words, Rosh Hashanah makes the shofar holy, not the other way around. Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and even weekday mornings make the synagogue a holy place when we come to it to pray. Not vice versa. And so forth.

Elsewhere in the book, Heschel describes the Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That is what has made Judaism so portable, so resilient, so able to continue in far-flung lands and under oppressive rule, and in good times and bad. When our Beit Miqdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our people were exiled. And since they could no longer sacrifice in the place designated by the Torah, they took their holiness with them wherever they went. Judaism became, by necessity, portable. Shabbat travels well - you can observe it as easily in Baghdad as in Cordoba, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Tehran, and Jerusalem. The Jewish palace in time is in every place and no place.

And so this biblical revolution, this palace in time, this portable holy wonder, continued to be observed for centuries and millennia. Ahad ha-Am got it right; Shabbat has kept the Jews Jewish.

And here we are in the modern world, beset by electronic enemies and creeping digital invaders at every turn.

In 1950, the Conservative movement faced a new development in American society: suburbanization. Leaving their close-knit, inner-city Jewish neighborhoods (like the Lower East Side in New York or Dorchester in Boston, where my father grew up), Jews were moving to the ‘burbs, where kosher food was hard to come by, where they were more likely to live next to non-Jews, and where they had to drive to get to their synagogue.

Newly-suburbanized Conservative rabbis, who always lived next door to the synagogue, noticed that many of their congregants would have to violate several of the 39 rabbinically-defined categories of prohibited work on Shabbat in order to drive to the synagogue. So the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the central body of the Conservative movement that still to this day makes decisions about halakhic questions, issued a teshuvah, a rabbinic answer to the question of observance of the Sabbath in modern times. They declared that if one lived too far away to walk, then it was better to drive to the synagogue than not to come at all.

As a part of the same teshuvah, they also said that the use of electrical appliances, like lights and telephones, is not forbidden on Shabbat. Electricity, which was unknown to our ancestors, does not fall under the rabbinic category of fire, and using it for appropriate purposes was just fine, provided it was in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat.

Well, my friends, times have changed. It has only been sixty years, but you all know that even during the last decade the rate at which technologies have continued to improve and grow more complex and more, well, pervasive is staggering. In 1950, nobody could have known about just how much electronic devices would invade our personal space, and how much we would be enslaved to them.

So I am about to propose something really radical, and at the same time quite contemporary.

Yes, it is true that the Conservative movement endorses a fairly stringent set of observances for the Shabbat. You might have noticed that on Shabbat in this building there is no cooking, no turning electrical appliances on and off, no writing, no spending money, and so forth. We try to discourage the use of cellular devices by people in the building on Shabbat and holidays as well. And this is the way that I and my family and some Conservative Jews observe Shabbat.

However, I would like to suggest something that is just so crazy it might work. (On television, whenever somebody says that, it always DOES work.)

What if we were to re-imagine what it means to have a “day off?”
What if we were to unite the principle of Shabbat with our need for freedom from the continuous stimuli of our electronic devices? What if, from Friday evening at sundown until Saturday night we were to turn off, tune out, and drop in?

Some of you might remember a variation on this phrase from the 1960s, coined by famed counter-cultural psychologist Timothy Leary: Turn on, tune in, drop out. (Of course, they say that if you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there...)

I am suggesting a contemporary Jewish take on a radical idea. To wit:

Turn off
This is the easy part. All of our devices power down (mostly). Find your power button, and turn it off on Friday evening before sunset. Turn it back on on Saturday night.

Tune out
This will require much more willpower. Letting go of the mundane matters of the week, the the things that vie for our attention nonstop, is no simple matter. We live in an impatient world, and we are not accustomed to putting aside our digital connections in favor of ourselves and our families.

To tune out is to seek the Zen state of patience and acceptance, understanding that your email will still be waiting there for you tomorrow. It’s not so easy, but the reward is great. Once you manage to do it successfully, you will find that it is not actually that difficult, and it is also liberating.

Drop in
And here is the best part: come to Temple Israel. These are your people, and this is where you might be able to have a dialogue with the Divine, in words, in song, or in the silent meditations of your own heart, and also to enjoy some real-time dialogue before and after with each other.

I am not alone in recommending turning off for Shabbat. There are two public initiatives going on right now that you should be aware of. The first one is called “Offlining.” Has anybody here heard of this? Raise your hand.

Offlining is a project put together by a pair of not particularly traditional guys who work in marketing, Eric Yaverbaum, who is Jewish, and Mark DiMassimo, who is not. Through various media, they are encouraging people to pledge to have 10 device-free dinners between now and Thanksgiving. As of this past week, nearly 11,000 people have taken this pledge. They targeted their first “No-Device Day” as today, Yom Kippur, and produced creative posters to promote it.

The other initiative is similar, although a little bit more far-reaching. This one comes from a Jewish organization called Reboot, which seeks to connect young adults with Judaism. Their concept is called “The Sabbath Manifesto.”

Reading from their website:

“The Sabbath Manifesto is a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world. We’ve created 10 core principles completely open for your unique interpretation. We welcome you to join us as we carve a weekly timeout into our lives.”

So the Sabbath Manifesto’s goal is to avoid shaking a finger and lecturing about the 39 categories of prohibited work, but rather to suggest 10 simple things that you can do to help enjoy the Shabbat as it should be enjoyed. Here they are:

1. Avoid technology. (Note: it does not say, “don’t touch anything that beeps or flashes”)
2. Connect with loved ones.
3. Nurture your health.
4. Get outside.
5. Avoid commerce.
6. Light candles.
7. Drink wine.
8. Eat bread.
9. Find silence.
10. Give back.

I like the simplicity of this approach, because I think it successfully unites tradition with modernity, something that we are always seeking to do in the Conservative world. And by making mostly positive statements rather than negative ones, it makes the Shabbat feel like a day of doing something good for yourself and the world rather than a day on which everything is forbidden.

As an added encouragement, particularly to #1 (avoiding technology), on the Sabbath Manifesto website you can buy a little sleeping bag for your cell phone. It’s adorable.

Now, of course, the traditionalists among us might say, “Well, turning off your cell phone and computer is a good idea. But there is ever so much more to Shabbat.”

Yes, there is ever so much more. But sometimes less is more. For all those of us who are committed to a high level of Shabbat observance, that is wonderful.

For those of us that are not, I suggest that you take this day to consider the ways in which the rest of your life has invaded your free time, and that we as Jews have a special day set aside for being free. We are slaves to technology, and the Shabbat can set us free from that slavery, just as God redeemed us from Egypt. Shabbat is our opportunity to step off the hamster wheel, and to rediscover simplicity. You might get a headache from dopamine withdrawal, but it will be worth it.

Author Judith Shulevitz, in her new book, The Sabbath World, describes Shabbat as God's claim on our time. You get six days. God gets one. I don't think that's such a bad trade. But you can also think of it this way: your work and your digital connections get six days. You get one. That’s a pretty good deal, too.

And, admittedly, it is not so easy to turn off and tune out. Author A.J. Jacobs, who wrote the smart and funny book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he documents his attempts to live in a way that is as close to what the Tanakh describes, confesses his own failure to avoid checking his email on Shabbat. He would make it an hour or two, and then give up.

Until one day, when he accidentally locks himself in the bathroom of his Upper West Side apartment (the doorknob is broken), and has to wait until his wife comes home to let him out, several hours later. After a certain amount of panic, he relaxes into the isolation.

“I'm OK with it,” he says. I've reached an unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I'm savoring the present. I'm admiring what I have, even if it's thirty-two square feet of fake marble and an angled electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence – without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.

“This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting,” says Jacobs.

As I have already stated, we sanctify time. That's what a holiday is. Days are holier than any space or thing, more holy than even the Torah scroll. Yes, we treat a Torah scroll with respect, and nobody would question that. But do we treat the seventh day with the same respect?

More importantly, do we treat ourselves with sufficient respect? Yes, God has staked a claim on your time. But what about you? You need the time. You need the break. You need the opportunity to disconnect, to detach yourself from your electronic leash, from all the things that trouble you all week long.

So consider making the rest of this Yom Kippur a No-Device Day. And then try turning off, tuning out, and dropping in on Shabbat.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Shabbat Shuvah 5771 - Returning to the Table

(Originally delivered on September 11, 2001.)

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, a name that captures the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance, in Hebrew, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, which can also be translated more literally as the Ten Days of Return. The name Shabbat Shuvah refers more directly to the first word of today’s haftarah, from the prophet Hoshea:

Shuvah yisrael ad adonai elohekha ki khashalta ba-avonekha.

Return O Israel, to the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity.

This is, of course, consistent with the overarching theme of the Yamim Nora-im, the High Holidays - that we have missed the mark, and we should return to God and right living.

Now, we could parse that latter phrase, “for you have stumbled in your iniquity,” because it is something of a challenge. Is it possible to be iniquitous and not stumble? Is it the iniquity or the stumbling that we must return for?

It is, in fact, a problem. But leaving that aside, the more interesting problem of the language occurs a few verses later, in verse 5 (which includes two more uses of the same root for return, shin-vav-bet, the leitwort or thematic word of this passage):

Erpah meshuvatam ohavem nedava; ki shav api mimenu.

I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for My anger is turned away from him.

The first part of the verse refers to a plural group of backsliders (their backsliding; love them freely), but the latter half of the verse refers to the return of one person (My anger is turned away from him). If the backsliders that Hoshea is referring to are all of us, who is the “him” that gets credit for turning away God’s anger?

In the Talmud, Masekhet Yoma, which is the tractate dedicated to Yom Kippur, we read the following:

Rabbi Meir used to say: Great is teshuvah, repentance, since the whole world is pardoned on account of the individual who has repented, as it is stated: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger is turned away from him.” It is not stated, “from them,” but “from him.”

Rabbi Meir’s point is that we all get credit for the honest teshuvah of even one of us. That is how powerful teshuvah is. It is not so easy, of course. But it is powerful.

What we should be asking ourselves over the course of this week is this: how can I change my behavior so that I do not make the mistakes that I have made in the past? How can I make right what I have broken?

Now, of course I am preaching to the choir. Anybody who is here today, after two days of High Holiday introspection, is clearly up to speed on all of this. (It never hurts to flatter your audience!)

But I am going to take this discussion out of the realm of the personal and into the international. Let us consider the fresh round of Middle East peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas have pledged to meet every two weeks, including the coming week.

I have stated this clearly before in this space, and I will say it again: the status quo in Israel and the territories is not sustainable, and everybody around the table knows it. The only real solution is the two-state solution, and we all know how painful this is going to be.

What will make or break these peace talks is, of course, teshuvah. That Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to return to the negotiating table is only the first stage of their return, their teshuvah. The next stage will be much more difficult.

Optimism is not available in abundance these days. Most of the pundits who have weighed in on this round have stated that it is unlikely that these talks will achieve anything new. Israel will not give up on building settlements, let alone consider withdrawing from them; the PA will not give up on the right of return of refugees to Israel. It’s dead in the water. As they say in Texas, that dog don’t hunt.

This is a hot topic on Ravnet. As you might expect, my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate run the gamut of opinions about Israel. Some are bullish on the prospects of and peace, some think that the other side will never honor their agreements, so why should we bother negotiating?

And the professional pundits have gone the same way, although perhaps in a more subtle and reflective way.

There was one particularly optimistic column that I read in the Times, by Martin Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel, who wrote about how now is the most optimistic time in recent history, and the basis for peace is stronger than it has ever been.

Indyk makes the following four points:

1. Violence is down considerably, with the PA police force newly trained with American help and demonstrating its capability of preventing terrorist activity in the West Bank, and Hamas preventing the rockets from Gaza, perhaps out of fear. While 452 Israelis were killed at the height of the intifada in 2002, there have been only 6 this year. (Of course, that’s 6 too many, but the difference is dramatic and undeniable.)

Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren has been saying for some time now that the situation on the West Bank is better than it has ever been. Law and order has brought peace and quiet: there was a 9% growth rate in the territories last year, with skyscrapers going up in Ramallah and new subdivisions in Jenin and Nablus. A properly-trained police force produces economic growth, and jobs and security will, we all hope, help the Palestinians to understand that peace, even with what they used to call “the Zionist entity,” is a good thing.

2. Settlement building has been minimal for 10 months. This is key in having returned the Palestinians to the negotiating table, according to Ambassador Oren. It seems unlikely that Netanyahu will extend the moratorium, but there are other compromise options that Indyk suggests.

3. A majority of people on both sides now support the two-state solution. The public is tired of war, says Indyk. This is not necessarily true of those who vote Likud, Netanyahu’s party. In fact, there is a cover story in the current issue of Time magazine that suggests that Israelis have become complacent in their flourishing success, in spite of the untenable status quo. I am not going to attempt to debunk the article. Yes, a majority of people want peace, but there is, understandably, a generous helping of skepticism about peace talks in the Israeli public. I hope that such thinking does not obscure the long-term visionary goal, which is that everybody would benefit even more from peace.

On this point, it is nonetheless important for us in the Diaspora to respect Israel’s democratic process. We should remember that it is not just the leaders at the table and the hopes of American Jewry and the Obama administration that are in play here. The more formidable problem is this: Netanyahu’s own party and some of his coalition partners are not on board with him. If he makes what Likud sees as a rash decision (like, for example, extending the settlement moratorium), he’ll be out of a job.

And the same applies to Abbas and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad as well. Perhaps you saw the news blurb online (curiously, the New York Times missed this) that on Monday, a few days after leaving Washington, Mr. Abbas stated clearly, for the record, that the PA will never recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” He knows that doing so is political suicide (or perhaps even actual suicide); for some of his constituents, even meeting Netanyahu raises the spectre of treason.

But let us hope that the majority opinion and cooler heads on both sides will prevail.

4. There are not many outstanding issues that require negotiation. Many of the details required by the Oslo accords of 17 years ago (can it really be that long?!) have already been worked out. All we are facing now is the set of tricky issues that I have already identified.

The moment is now, says Indyk; all that remains is the willpower and courage of Abbas and Netanyahu to make the politically complicated decisions.

I was listening to the NPR News Quiz Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me last Sunday afternoon, and the host remarked sarcastically that the stakes for the first meeting in Washington were so low, that it was considered successful merely because the two sides agreed to meet again. This may be funny, or perhaps pathetic, but it is also true. They agreed to meet every two weeks until this thing is resolved.

Furthermore, in the wake of the first meeting, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu expressed optimism that the entire negotiation can be resolved within a year. It makes me wonder, if all they can do is agree to further meetings, what will be accomplished within that year?

Still, the next meeting is this coming week, during, as luck would have it, Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the aforementioned Ten Days of Return. And so, in what we hope is good faith, Abbas and particularly Netanyahu will return once again to the table. And let us hope that this time, they are willing to approach the task at hand with the same demeanor with which we approach God and each other during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah.

Let us hope that they hear the sound of the metaphorical shofar, calling them to return. Let us hope that they draw on the theme of purity that permeates these days, entering these negotiations with pure souls and honest intentions. Let us hope that they gesture to each other in the cantorial mode of selihah, the hopeful, prayerful, and yet slightly mournful chant that is omnipresent during this season, humble in spirit and forthright about the past, with the intention of doing better in 5771.

Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi, from 13th century Spain, said the following about teshuvah. “The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned. If, for instance, his tongue gave offence to others, he should study the Torah aloud. With whatever part of the body he sinned he should now engage in good deeds. If the feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of good. The mouth that had spoken falsehood should now be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity. The haughty eye should now gaze downwards. The plotting heart should now meditate on the teachings of Torah. The trouble-maker should now become a peace-maker.”

And finally, as we commemorate on this day the horrible tragedy of nine years ago, we should remember that there are people in this world who will want to prevent through violence any form of forward movement. It is up to us to make sure that we do not negotiate with terrorists or embolden them in any way. And the only way to do this is to engage with the moderates. Then we can hope that if Israel reaches a peace deal with the leaders of Fatah, the West Bank PA authorities, the people of Gaza will see and understand the peace dividend and throw off the yoke of Hamas.

Call me naive, if you will. Call me a peacenik, if you want. I prefer to think that I am something of an optimist. But this is the week of return; now is the time to return to the table in good faith. Let us hope that the players who have returned do what is right.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh Hashanah 5771 - The Youth House is the Qodesh ha-Qodashim of Temple Israel

(Originally delivered on September 9 & 10, 2010.)

This is essentially the first of a 2-part sermon, and I will be giving the second half on Yom Kippur.

I must confess two things. The first is that I am receiving no money for mentioning the following product. The second is that I own, and love, my iPod Touch. It gives me instant access to many wonderful things: news, email, music, the Internet, YouTube, and so forth. I am sure that many of you have similar devices, which you are similarly devoted to.

But all of this instant gratification gives me pause. The modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s describes God’s encounter with humans at Mt. Sinai as having left both fundamentally changed; likewise, my iPod has changed me as well. And I am not sure that it is necessarily all for the better.

We will come back to the iPod, but the overarching theme to this two-part sermon is this question: What makes us Jewish, and what keeps us Jewish, in the age of the iPod, when momentary satisfaction can be found instantly, and infinite choice rules our desires?

* * * *

What makes us Jewish?

Is it merely bloodlines? Being born to a Jewish mother? Tribal affiliation?
Is it going to services? Bar/t Mitzvah? Jewish law? Shabbat?

Is it a way of thinking?

Is it a commitment to a certain set of principles?

Now how about this:
What keeps us Jewish?

This is a harder question to answer.

In the wake of the recent marriage of Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of two famous Southern Methodists, and Marc Mezvinsky, who grew up in a Jewish home identified with the Conservative movement (that’s right, he’s one of us!), some among us are asking, is this our highest aspiration in America?

America has always been a land of freedom. Arrival in what my great-grandparents called in Yiddish “Di Goldene Medina,” the Golden Land, brought more liberties than they could have possibly known in their country of origin. They fled not only the oppression of non-Jewish rule, but also rabbinic control, the coercion of the Jewish religious authorities in the old country. There are stories of people burning their tefillin while crossing over from Europe by boat, demonstrating their release from this religious control. As Dr. Jonathan Sarna reports in his monumental work, American Judaism, rabbis who immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th century were shocked to see, even on the boat to America, many Jews who “defiled themselves with non-Jewish food... abandoned their daily prayers and considered their tallitot and tefillin excess baggage.”

There are many of us here this mornng, and I think that your presence here indicates that you think that Judaism is valuable, that it is a gift that you have been given by your parents, and that you would like to bestow upon your descendants. How many of us here want great-grandchildren who positively identify as Jewish? Raise your hands.

Given all of that, what will keep us Jewish in America, the golden land of freedom, that great double-edged sword?

And here, I do not necessarily mean “Jewish” in the halakhic sense. That is, the simple definition mandated by Jewish law, which says that you are Jewish if you are born to a Jewish mother, or convert to Judaism under the auspices of a rabbinic Beit Din.

No, I am talking about something else. There are, in fact, multiple ways to be Jewish.

A story is told of one Shimon Fogelberg, who was obsessed with joining a restricted club. So he goes off to Oxford University, acquires an education and the accent of a British gentleman, gets his clothes tailored at Savile Row, and changes his name to Chauncey Fumpleroy III. He returns two years later to the same club, walks up to the same clerk that had kept him out two years before for being Jewish, and says, in the Queen’s English, “Good afternoon. I should like to apply for admission to this grand institution.”

“Certainly, sir,” says the clerk, taking out a form. “And may I ask your name?”

“Chauncey Fumpleroy the Third.”

“Very good, Mr. Fumpleroy. And may I ask your occupation?”

“I deal in stocks and bonds.”

“Very good, sir,” said the clerk again. “And I hope you won’t mind, sir, but it is our policy to ask about your religion as well.”

“Religion?” said Fumpleroy. “I am of the goyish persuasion.”

For Mr. Fogelberg, and for many of us, the American experience has been as much about assimilation as anything else. As such, we have produced many different ways to be Jewish, more than there were in the old country. Yes, there is the halakhic definition of who is a Jew, but it is also possible to be halakhically Jewish, but not religiously or culturally Jewish. It is also possible to be culturally Jewish without being religiously so. And then there is secular Zionism, something that my wife was born into.

You can also be what we might call “reflexively” Jewish. This is when you’re Jewish when you’re with your family - for holidays and for life-cycle celebrations (weddings, benei mitzvah, beritot milah, and so forth), but with no further consideration as to how Judaism permeates the rest of your life.

And then there is what you might call “default” Judaism, which is that you think of yourself as Jewish, and perhaps even as a member of the Jewish people, but do not do anything distinctly Jewish in your life. Those Jews are growing in number today, but they do not tend to pass their Judaism on to their children.

But I am about to advocate for the best way to be Jewish: that is, to be actively Jewish. Active Judaism and those who practice it are what makes us all Jewish, and will keep us Jewish.

To be actively Jewish, you have to do Jewish things: learn our sacred texts, go to the synagogue (even when it’s not a bar mitzvah), and associate with the Jewish community. This is much harder than the “default” method. For many of us, to be actively Jewish requires stepping outside of our comfort zones.

Default Judaism will not ensure that there are Jews in the next generation. Active Judaism will.

And, just to be clear about this, being active does not necessarily mean being Orthodox. And default does not equal Reform. I know many active Reform Jews, and many default Orthodox Jews.

My friends, I have a two-fold suggestion about how to make sure that Temple Israel, and the moderate approach to Judaism that it stands for, will be around for our children and grandchildren: number 1, that we have more children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and number 2, that we dedicate and re-dedicate ourselves to the building of this community by being actively Jewish.

Now, anybody who has been paying attention to my High Holiday sermons over the past three years has noticed that this is my cause. Some rabbis like to talk about personal goals, about bettering yourself. And that’s good. One way of building community is to improve yourself.

I have a more collective vision, one that seeks to incorporate individuals into the greater community. And this is, I think, the most important task facing us as modern people. There are plenty of societal forces that tear us apart, driving extended families to become nuclear families, and nuclear families to become distant associations (as an extreme example, my brother and sister and I live in Florida, California, and New York). This is not unusual in America, for Jews or non-Jews.

But we Jews have each other. We are all members of Kelal Yisrael (that is, the collective group of all Jews). And we need each other. Without commitment to community, our Jewish community, we have nothing, and will rapidly disappear into the wider fabric of America.

* * * *

I have been here at Temple Israel for three years now, and, as some of you might know, I have now taken on an second role, a role is about to lead me into the inner sanctum of Temple Israel. Our Qodesh ha-Qodashim, the Holy of Holies. No, it is not the main office. No, there’s no secret inner rabbinic lair. There is no special clubhouse behind the ark in the sanctuary, open only to an elite few.

The Qodesh ha-Qodashim is not even in this building. It’s across the parking lot, in the Waxman Youth House.

I am fortunate in that I have been charged with the task of taking young adults, newly-obligated to the 613 mitzvot - commandments of Jewish tradition - and exposing them to the depth and breadth of Judaism. I have taken on the job of turning children who have barely passed the milestone of their benei mitzvah into committed, strongly-identified Jewish adults.

Because that is our goal. If we want children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations who understand the value of the Torah in the world of today and tomorrow, then it is not enough to sit here on Rosh Hashanah and be introspective and seek forgiveness on Yom Kippur; it is not enough to gather with family and friends for other holidays; it is not enough to provide our young people with merely sufficient Jewish knowledge to be called to the Torah on their bar or bat mitzvah. It is certainly not enough to reproduce. Rather, we must produce children who are actively committed to Judaism and our traditions.

OK, sure, Rabbi. But how do we do this?

Think for a moment. What was your most memorable Jewish experience?

How many of us had that experience between the ages of 13 and 22?

Two weeks ago, I and the Youth House staff took a bunch of students and a few parents to Lido Beach, on the South Shore of Long Island. We spent a few hours there, playing in the sun, riding the waves, eating lunch, and so forth. It was beautiful. And powerful. And although you might not think of this as a Jewish experience, some of those teens will remember the day that they went with the rabbi to the beach, and have positive associations with the Youth House, with other Jewish teens, with Temple Israel, and of course with Rabbi Adelson.

Adolescence is the time when one’s identity is truly coming into formation, when your brain knits together the various pieces of your personality that will become the adult self. Yes, it is a challenging time for most of us. But it is also a time from which, as grownups, we will draw the most powerful lessons, memories and associations.

The psychologist Erik Erikson (a German-born Jew who immigrated to America when the Nazis rose to power in 1933) identified the adolescent years as a period in which we face the basic challenge of Identity (vs. Role Confusion). We start to make our own choices. We struggle with social interactions, and begin to grapple with moral issues, and our most significant relationships are with peers. According to Erikson, the teenager asks, “Who am I and where am I going?”

Who here remembers first falling in love as a high school student, whether it was with a novel, a class, or another student? Who here remembers taking those first few steps outside of your childhood, when you began to understand that the world offers many more options than those that had been available to you up until that point, like the option of choosing your own activities or vocation, or even (has veshalom!) disagreeing with your parents? Who remembers discovering a new idea, a new philosophy, a new cause, and discussing it passionately with your friends? These are all experiences that contribute to the formation of our identities, and this is the central developmental feature of adolescence.

By taking teens to the beach, and helping them learn to recite the words of ma’ariv (the evening service), and discussing the texts of our tradition with honesty and reverence, and answering their questions about God and tradition frankly, and being in the background while they enjoy themselves with their friends, I hope to build the lifelong identity components that will make sure that they will always be committed to Judaism and the Jewish community, that they will be active Jews.

Some of you might be thinking, is he still giving a High Holiday sermon? Why should I care? My kids are grown, or I don’t have teenagers, or I want to hear something about personal betterment or repentance for my sins, rabbi.

Here is why this should be important to you. Because the teens that attend the Youth House are the actively Jewish kids who are most likely to carry the mantle of Jewish tradition for this community. Sure, there are some people in this room who will never send their kids to the Youth House, even if I were to dedicate 20 sermons to the idea. But I think that everybody here can agree that we need to send strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable teens out from Temple Israel into this world, so that they will continue to build this community and others like it for subsequent generations.

And as I am sure you know, 13-year-olds who complete the Bar Mitzvah process know many things, but they have not even begun to wrestle with the more serious questions of Jewish identity. If we do not give them the opportunities to do so in the years following, they may form adult identities that do not include Judaism, Jewish life, or Jewish learning.

Our teenagers, these are our builders. These are our the future of our community. We have to be there when they ask, as Erikson put it, “Who am I and where am I going?”

The concluding paragraph of the Talmudic tractate of Berakhot is a famous passage, one that appears in every Conservative siddur that I know of, including the mahzor that you might be holding right now. It’s on page 290, if you would like to look, but you will have to read the Hebrew, because I do not agree with the translation. It reads as follows:

R. El’azar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, (Isaiah 54:13) “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” The word, banayikh, your children, appears twice in this verse. R. El’azar wants us to read the second one as bonayikh, your builders. Hence, “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your builders.”

There is actually a double-entendre here, as the word “bonayikh” can be read as either “your builders,” or “your learned ones.” The point is that our learned ones ARE our builders. We build community through learning, and being involved. To be actively Jewish is to build community.

And building the Youth House, where young people become strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable adults, is an essential plank in maintaining our community. The Youth House is the Qodesh ha-Qodashim. It takes newly-minted benei mitzvah, and turns them into Jews. It is what makes these young adults Jewish, and in so doing makes all of us Jewish.

It is more than just a place for teens to hang out and learn. It is also a focal point of this community. It is where education meets practice meets social interaction. It is the incubator of ideas that infiltrate the rest of this community, from social action to environmental action to religious action.

Let me give you some examples. Here are some of the things that students in the Youth House will be doing this year:

1. Taking a trip to Israel. I will be leading a nine-day excursion to Israel during the February vacation, in which we will see not only the holy sites and the archaeological wonders, but also points of historical interest throughout Jewish history, and we will also have as many opportunities as possible to interact with modern Israeli life, through socializing with Israeli teens and spending a Shabbat in the homes of an Israeli Conservative community (known in Israel as Masorti).

2. Building involvement with USY and Kadima. United Synagogue Youth, or USY, is the national Jewish youth group of the Conservative movement; our Youth House is a chapter of USY, and we aim to step up our involvement, so that our teens have the opportunity to meet and be actively Jewish with others from all over the region. Kadima is a youth group for 6th through 8th grades, and we are also planning to establish a chapter here for our middle-schoolers.

3. Team Tikkun. We have instituted a new program this year that meet once per month and help teens learn how to raise money and donate it wisely, so that their donations match their personal priorities for tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is called Team Tikkun,

4. Finally, continuing all of the great teen-centric programming, in addition to its academics, that the Youth House has always done: Shabbat retreats, trips to amusement parks, holiday activities, the teen Shabbat service in the Main Sanctuary on Shabbat Hol Hamo-ed Pesah, and so forth.

Furthermore, I have some very good news. Outside of the academic portion of the Youth House, the classes that meet every Tuesday and Thursday, all of the things that the Youth House does are open not only to teens who are enrolled in the High School classes, but to every child in the community. Any child in grades 8-12, even those whose families do not belong to Temple Israel, can just show up to any of our social activities. The opportunity to participate and learn and grow with your peers is open to all.

There is a Hasidic story of a boy who used to wander in the woods. At first, his father allowed him to go, but as the child grew older and spent more time in the woods, his father began to worry more. The woods were dangerous, and the father did not know what lurked there.

One day he decided to ask his son about it. “My son,” he said, “I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. Why do you go there?”

The boy replied, “I go there to find God.”

“That is a very good thing,” replied his father gently. “I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”

“Yes,” the boy answered, “but I am not.”

All of us seek God, in one way or another, depending on how you define God and what you expect to find by seeking. Sometimes, in order to find God, we have to reach a little beyond our comfort zone, we have to step out into the woods. The teenage years are essential in our own personal quests to discover and understand the wealth of Jewish tradition, and the depth of the Infinite. The Youth House is the place to seek and find, just across the parking lot, and just a little bit outside of our usual realm. It’s a little like going into the woods.

And it’s the laboratory in which we create active Jews, from those who might otherwise be default or reflexive Jews. And in so doing, the Youth House makes us all Jewish. It is truly the Qodesh haQodashim, the inner sanctum of Temple Israel. It is the closest we can get to an insurance policy to ensure our survival as a community.

Whether you are a parent with a teenager in the 8th-12th grades, an empty-nester, a young adult, single, married, whatever, the Youth House is the center of the action. So I encourage you to urge your children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins, and friends to come and participate. And drop by yourself to check it out.

On this day when we ask for God to remember us for life, I suggest that we all remember that adult Jewish life only begins at Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. The opportunities for teens to clothe themselves in their adult Jewish identity are available here. If we fail to cultivate strongly-identified Jewish teens, after their bar or bat mitzvah, our future as a community is, at best, tenuous.

We no longer live in the pre-modern world, where our children had no choice but to be Jewish. Today, with our iPod mentalities, when you can delete a song just as easily as you can buy it online, Judaism is just one more choice that can be just as easily discarded. It is only through continuing to further their Jewish involvement and learning through the teenage years, that we can even hope that our young people will keep Jewish identity on their playlist. The Youth House is the Qodesh haQodashim, the Holy of Holies of Temple Israel. Please help me in making that a strong, steadfast reality.