Friday, October 28, 2011

Noah 5772 - Continuing the Jewish Conversation (or, the Exile of the Word)

The stories of Bereishit / Genesis are all so wonderfully, quintessentially human.  Tales of seduction and murder, betrayal and vengeance, bloodthirst and mendacity.  They remind us that to be human is to be imperfect.  And yet, imperfection does not prevent us from occasionally fulfilling a holy task.

Here is the paradox about Noah: he builds the floating storage unit that maintains human and animal life during the flood.  But Noah is a fundamentally flawed person, righteous only when compared to all the corrupt and lawless people that God destroyed.  And Noah carries out his mission successfully.  While God resets the Earth, wiping the slate clean, his imperfect assistant Noah preserves life.  

Among all the holy tasks that we have, one that each of us in this room shares is somewhat like Noah’s: to make sure that our grandchildren know that they are Jewish, and why.  

Noah, however, suffers from a spiritual affliction that the Zohar calls “galut ha-dibbur,” which we might translate as, “the exile of the word.”  This is what we must avoid in our own individual arks, on our own holy missions of preservation.

This is a concept that I heard this week while listening to a podcast of the NPR program, “On Being,” which features interviews with religious leaders, authors, and thinkers about issues of faith.  Recently, the host, Krista Tippett, traveled to Jerusalem to interview Jewish and Muslim leaders.  One of those interviews was with Dr. Avivah Zornberg, an author and Torah commentator who is interested in the intersection of Scripture and psychoanalysis.

In the course of the program, Dr. Zornberg compared the ark to a kind of floating prison.  The Hebrew word that we usually translate as “ark” is “teivah,” literally, a box.  According to midrash, Noah was confined in this box, and could not sleep because he was feeding the animals all day and night; and furthermore did not engage in marital relations with his wife.  The experience was so dehumanizing that Noah suffered a kind of trauma: when he emerged from this box, he was a damaged man who took up drinking, which did not turn out so well for him or his sons.

Noah falls victim to galut ha-dibbur, the exile of the word.  The Hebrew word dibbur, which is usually translated as “speech,” is really so much more than that.  Dibbur is communication, connection, everything that prevents a person from being closed up inside himself.  It is the way we connect to others.  On his journey, Noah loses his ability to connect.  His dibbur is exiled.  

How many of us can relate to the feeling that being Jewish matters, but we don’t exactly know why?  For sure, we all know fellow Jews for whom this is true.  This is an issue that relates to the larger question of, “In the future, who will be Jewish?”  The conversation about preserving Judaism and Jewish life, particularly outside the Haredi world, is one that perpetually roils the Jewish community.

I read this week an online article from an Israeli newspaper about how the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, was speaking to a group of high school seniors in Ramat Gan, Israel, where he stated, or perhaps overstated the importance of in-marriage among Jews.  “Intermarriage,” said Rabbi Lau, “plays into the hands of the Nazis.”  

Now this was a message that I heard often growing up in my little hometown in Western Massachusetts, a town in which there were about 9,000 people and very few Jews.  My mother made similar statements on many occasions, variations on, “We cannot give Hitler a posthumous victory,” and so forth.  I recall being somewhat anxious about the fact that, given that my prospects were fairly limited in this small town with, like, five other Jewish families, who on Earth was I going to marry?  (Talk about the intersection of Judaism and psychoanalysis!)

Back to Ramat Gan, a city in Israel with a population of nearly 150,000 that is almost entirely Jewish.  According to Wikipedia, Ramat Gan has 112 synagogues, a Buddhist temple, and a Scientology center.  Unlike in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and for that matter virtually all of America (some of you may be surprised to know that the Jewish population of Great Neck is NOT representative of this country), in Ramat Gan, it would be very hard to find a non-Jew to marry.

But what is remarkable is that during the course of this lecture by Rabbi Lau, many of the students in the room were upset by his remarks.  Some even walked out.  How dare he tell us, modern Israeli young adults, whom not to marry.

This reaction is, I suspect, a wee bit surprising to most of us, since (a) it hardly seems out of character for a rabbi, and especially an Orthodox rabbi, to talk about in-marriage as an ideal in Jewish life, and (b) because intermarriage has not been nearly as siginificant issue in Israel as it is here in the States.

(By the way, this is a good opportunity to point out that although roughly half of all marriages in the United States involving Jews nowadays are between a Jew and a non-Jew, all we have to do is hold onto 25% of the children born to inter-faith families for us to retain our numbers here in America. )

The real reason Rabbi Lau’s remarks surprised and angered these young men and women is because Israel has done a frightfully poor job of bringing secular Jews into the Jewish conversation.  In Israel, conventional wisdom states that you’re either Orthodox or secular, that you keep all 613 mitzvot or you keep none at all.

The conversation in America, thank God, is very different.


Close your eyes for a moment.  Think of what you did this morning as you entered this building and then this sanctuary.  Retrace your steps.

Did you put on a head covering?  A tallit?  Take a moment to peruse the flyers on the table out in front of the sanctuary?  Did you find a good seat?  Was it where you usually sit when you are here?  Did you immediately ascertain where we were in the siddur or humash?  Did you follow along?

Open your eyes.

We here in this room are filled with varying degrees of Jewish knowledge: how to read Hebrew, say, or when it is appropriate to enter the sanctuary or on what days it is inappropriate to use electronic devices in the building.  My point here is to raise our awareness of what we know about being Jewish; we are all carrying memories and learned behavior given to us by our parents, teachers, and peers.

Most of the Jewish world, however, has only identity, not memory or accumulated knowledge.  There is a large chunk of American Jewry for whom Jewish identity means bagels and lox or Chinese food on Christmas.  Many secular Jews who feel the need to identify as Jews have no clear sense as to why or how.

This is the current reality of American Judaism.  And right here, within the ranks of those who still identify with the Conservative movement, this is the battle that we are fighting perhaps more acutely than Orthodoxy or Reform.  

Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove. a colleague of mine and Rabbi Stecker’s who is the rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, was recently on a trip with other American rabbis to visit Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, where nearly 2 million Jews remain after the exodus of those who left for Israel, Europe, and America after the fall of communism.  He wrote an article for the Jewish Week in which he viewed American Judaism through the prism of what remains in the FSU after nearly 70 years of denying Judaism to Jews:

Whether it is the decades following a totalitarian regime or the unrivaled blessings of 20th century American Jewish life, Jewish identity is being constructed on a tabula rasa that can no longer presuppose generational attachments and loyalties.

Memory has been replaced by identity. Even in the State of Israel itself, the Tallit has been replaced by the Israeli flag. Whether it is New York, St. Petersburg or Tel Aviv; Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, the mimetic modes of transmitting identity from one generation to the next are simply no longer in play. All Jews have become, in a sense, Jews who have forgotten that they were Jews.

Now, I think that Rabbi Cosgrove’s words are wise, but I also think that he is ignoring the fact that there are slices of the Jewish world where these “mimetic modes” are in fact still in play, as they clearly are with the two families that have brought their boys to become benei mitzvah today.  We may be a small segment of non-Orthodox Judaism, but we are still here.

Most of us in this room still have those memories.  We remember going to synagogue with our grandparents, or helping our parents clean the house for Pesah or that holy moment of lighting the Shabbat candles as a familiy.  Most of us still connect our Jewish identity with Jewish practice and Jewish knowledge.  We are, in some sense, on the modern ark, repositories of Jewish knowledge that we are carrying for later generations.

But it’s not enough just to be vessels.  The not-so-righteous Noah failed because of the exile of the word.

We cannot allow that to happen to us.  We need to continue to talk about being Jewish, to emphasize Jewish values, to maintain our traditions by creating the memories for future generations, the same memories that we have received from our parents and grandparents.  On some level, we are all in individual arks, vessels of dibbur, of conversation and connection.

To return to Rabbi Cosgrove for a moment:

It is incumbent upon forward-looking Jewish leaders to recognize that ours is an age when Jewish identity must be continually discovered, cultivated and justified for every single Jew every single day.

Merely having a Jewish identity is not really enough.  Judaism is something that must be internalized, that must be discussed and acted upon for it to continue to be transmitted to subsequent generations.  

We cannot allow our Judaism to be boxed-in like Noah, and taken out out only for special occasions and programs.  To do so will only result in galut ha-dibbur.  We must, as Rabbi Cosgrove said, continually cultivate that Jewish conversation.

And how do we do this?  Very simple.  

By talking to our children about topics of Jewish interest.  Here’s an idea: Pick a current events article, print it and hand it out around the Shabbat dinner table.  Discuss it and then look for the Jewish angle.  Play “Spot the Jewish value.”

Research and give to Jewish charities and Jewish communal and religious organizations.  Tell your friends about them.

Learn.  Study.  Re-read the Torah.  There is always more to learn.

Discuss the importance of having grandchildren who not only know that they are Jewish, but who are also given real memories of real Jewish life from birth to Torah, huppah, and ma’asim tovim, as we say when we name a newborn baby.

And, of course, don't forget the importance of ritual. Ritual creates powerful memories.
Let’s not resign ourselves to galut ha-dibbur.  Create the conversation.  Make the connection.  Transmit those memories. And keep talking.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, October 29, 2011.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday Kavvanah, 10/27/2011 - The Glorious Dysfunctionality of Genesis

It's been quite some time since a regular, non-holiday-related kavvanah has appeared in this cyber-spot.  The Modern Rabbi has been quite busy with matters of teshuvah and the unadulterated joy of Sukkot and Simhat Torah.

But now we're back in business.  With the return of the Torah to the beginning, we get to dig once again into the fundamentally human, flawed lives of the characters of Bereishit / Genesis: the serpentine seduction of Eve, the brotherly love of Cain and Abel, the boozy escapades of Noah and his family, and so on.  There is so much here to mine regarding our own imperfect lives and society that I am reminded of that old rabbinic standard about the Torah from Pirqei Avot (5:24)

בן בג בג אומר, הפוך בה והפך בה, דכולא בה
Ben Bag Bag omer: hafokh ba vehafekh ba, dekhola ba.
Ben Bag Bag taught: Study it and review it, for everything can be found in it.

Why do we re-read the Torah each year?  Because analyze ourselves through its tales, and especially through the very human lens of the Bereishit narrative.  Let the good times roll (again)!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Simhat Torah - A Time to Dance

I must admit that I'm not big on dancing in synagogue.  Singing joyously at the top of my lungs, sure.  (When we were in high school, my sister was always embarrassed sitting next to me at our synagogue in Pittsfield, Massachusetts because she thought that I always sang too loud.)  But dancing has never really struck me as being a form of prayer, and I would just as soon celebrate in other ways.

At Temple Israel, we have incorporated dancing into our monthly Neranena! service on one Friday night per month (the next one is Oct. 28), when we let down our musical hair and break into "spontaneous" dance at the end of Lekha Dodi.  But Simhat Torah is an entirely different story - this is a time of mandated partying, of the joyous revelry that comes with the annual completion and re-commencement of the reading of the Torah.  This is the only holiday that actually includes the word simhah (happiness) in its name.  We have no choice but to move, to get up and dance and celebrate.

So I hold on to my tallit and waltz into the fray.  If you're standing on the side on Thursday evening or Friday morning, Rabbi Stecker or I just might try to coax you out into the circle as well.  You have been warned.

It's time to dance!  Hag sameah!

Hoshana Rabba - This is the End

Seven long weeks ago, we opened the month of Elul with the sound of the shofar; this morning we ushered out the period of repentance by walking seven circles and beating willow branches against the floor.  Today is the last day to ask for forgiveness, a subtle reflection of Yom Kippur, when we acknowledge for a final time this season the fragility of our lives:

קול מבשר, מבשר ואומר
Qol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer.
The voice of the prophet rings out, proclaiming good news of peace and deliverance

As the leaves fall off the beaten willow branches, we listen closely for that prophetic voice, heralding the return to normalcy and the end of the holidays.  The lulav and etrog are no longer holy ritual objects; they return to being a fragrant citrus fruit and bunches of leaves.  So too do we return to our normal selves, restoring the routine working and learning, of loving and toiling, of six mundane days and then Shabbat.

All that remains now is the joy of celebrating with the Torah as we roll her back to the beginning, and the cycle is complete.  Hag sameah!

(And, utilizing the electronic "Hoshana Rabba extension," if there is anything I might have done to hurt a reader of this blog in the past year, intentionally or unintentionally, will you forgive me?)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What are you grateful for? Sukkot is the Jewish Thanksgiving

We all know the story of Thanksgiving, right?  The pilgrims survived the long winter only with the help of the natives, and then harvested their first good harvest in the New World.  They celebrated with a big dinner on the 4th Thursday in November, 1621, and boy, were they grateful!  Since then, Thanksgiving has always been a time for Americans to express our gratitude by eating turkey.  

OK, well maybe.  So scholars have debunked the story somewhat, and also pointed out that Thanksgiving has only been celebrated on an annual basis since the late 19th century.  Regardless, there is no question that Thanksgiving is one of the most-celebrated American holidays, and not just as a day off from work.

Here’s the interesting and more relevant point: Thanksgiving is effectively the American version of Sukkot.  

Sukkot is a harvest festival, the same festival which is celebrated around the world in agrarian societies.  The Chinese Moon Festival, the Persian Mehrgan, Korean Chuseok, are examples of other variants on Sukkot.  These are all festivals that celebrate the conclusion of the fall harvest, a time of great joy to our ancestors, and a time of gratitude for all pre-industrial cultures.

Of course, we have all been taught that Sukkot is about the time spent in the desert.  Yes, the Torah says that.  But just by looking at the way that we observe the festival even today, when few if any of us truly live off the land - the Arba’at Ha-Minim the four species, the sukkah, which is quite reminiscent of the temporary shacks that Middle Eastern farmers to this day set up in their fields during harvest time to prevent theft of valuable crops at night, the gourds and fruits with which we decorate the Sukkah, and even the custom of Ushpizin, of inviting in famous figures from Jewish history to come and partake of the bounty - these all point to the harvest angle.

Sukkot is said to be the the only Jewish holiday of complete, perfect joy; as such, there is a traditional theory that says that this is the only holiday that will continue to be celebrated after the Messiah comes.

And it is really a holiday of gratitude, just like Thanksgiving.  Now we have done teshuvah / repentance, fasted, afflicted our souls just a few days ago, and we are humbled and ready for a holiday of pure joy.  


My sister, who lives in Berkeley, California, came to stay with us here in Great Neck for Yom Kippur.  At our break-the-fast, she described a restaurant chain in California called “Cafe Gratitude.”  These restaurants serve entirely organic, vegan food, much of which is also raw.   She told us that, when you enter, the staff asks you, “What are you grateful for today?”

We all had a good laugh over this last Saturday evening, as we were busy stuffing our faces.

Now we were never a particularly “spiritual” or reflective family.  We were not inclined to be interested in our “journeys.”  We were not interested in meditation, mysticism, New-Age-ism, or any such non-concrete, “touchy-feely” stuff.  We were always what-you-see-is-what-you-get, meat and potatoes conventional, and especially when it came to Judaism.  Our Jewish practice was mostly about the what and the how rather than the why.  We had little interest in midrash or motivation.

So, for example, at the Pesah seder, we read the story in English, but had no strong desire to  understand or discuss the material, which is really the point of the seder.  We dutifully washed our hands, reclined to the left while drinking the wine, and dipped all the prescribed dippables.  But getting in touch with the story of freedom, the journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel?  Not interested.  Pass the salt water, please.

And, on the occasional Thanksgiving, when my mother attempted to bother us about what we were thankful for, we rolled our eyes and grunted and tucked into the turkey and stuffing.

So the idea of expressing gratitude, at least aloud, in front of my family, was generally frowned upon.  Add to this the fact that we are all tall people with hearty appetites, and you can understand that when we go into a restaurant, we would prefer just to eat and not be pestered with annoying questions that are seemingly unrelated to the food itself.

And really, that’s what we have liturgy for, isn’t it?  Liturgy provides the words for our praise, thanks, requests, and so forth when our own words escape us or feel inadequate.  The words of the siddur set us free from having to be creative in the ways that we express our praise and thanks to God.

A few days ago, I spent some time flipping through the piyyutim (liturgical poems) for Hoshanot, the litanies recited every day of Sukkot as we parade around the sanctuary with lulav and etrog (we’ll be doing this a little later today).  Now, the whole principle behind marching around and chanting, “Hosha na,” “save us,” is that we are grateful for the many things that God has given us, and we ask that God favors us again in the future as in the past.  Each of the hoshanot paragraphs follows a certain theme of things that we are grateful for.  

(For example, today’s hoshanot piyyut is about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, beginning with Even Shetiyyah, the foundation-stone that is today visible inside the Dome of the Rock, at the top of the mountain, the place where it is traditionally thought that Isaac was bound by his father, and where the Qodesh ha-Qodashim, the Holy of Holies probably stood prior to 70 CE.  The rest of the piyyut is about other features of the Temple.  We asked to be saved based on the merits of the Temple, God’s former dwelling place on Earth).

We express our gratitude through ancient poems in an obscure Hebrew that really only vaguely resembles its modern, spoken equivalent.  Where is the opportunity for us to express ourselves in our own language, according to what we are grateful for in our own lives?

Really, there are two major components to tefillah / prayer: qeva (the fixed text found in our siddur) and kavvanah (that which is spontaneous, from the heart).  To that end, and, bearing in mind that Sukkot is the Jewish Thanksgiving, in a minute or two, I am going to ask now for a few brave, reflective volunteers, who are willing to tell us what they are grateful for today.

First, an anecdote:  puzzles were a favorite pastime in my wife’s family.  She tells me that one of the first puzzles that she recalls putting together without the help of an adult was of a cartoon of a mouse in the midst of a fragrant garden with the caption, “Don’t worry, don’t hurry, don’t forget to smell the flowers.”  I presume that most of us are grateful for family, friends, work, and so forth.  But what what about the small stuff, the inconspicuous blossoms that we might be too hurried to notice?  What of the What apretty autumn leaves that we may or may not pay attention to as we go about our day?  bout the clean water from our taps, the easy availability of healthy food, the infrastructure that we usually take for granted?


When we march around later, reciting hosha na, save us for the sake of the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, keep these things in mind as kavvanah.  That is what makes Judaism real for us today.  Be grateful!  

Hag sameah.

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday morning, October 14, 2011.)