Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why I Am a Jewish None (or a None-ish Jew) and Why You Should Care

(This is an adapted version of the sermon I delivered on Friday evening, December 28, 2012 at NSCI)

I’d like to share a recent self- revelation: deep down inside, my soul is the soul of a None.  No, I didn't spell that wrong. I’m not referring to a Catholic nun of course!  Let me explain. A "None" is the name given to a “member” of the fastest growing religious group in our country - a seemingly new religious denomination named by the Pew Forum and other religion demographers as those who will not identify with any singular religious grouping, category or denomination.  The Nones have grown from 15% to 20% of the US population in the last 5 years alone, and they’re projected to increase even more over the next decade. 

It seems like a pretty sad indicator for the face of organized religion at first. But don't get too distressed.  Here's something interesting: Although atheists and agnostics are included in the "Nones" category, their specific populations have remained a steady, flat 6% for a quite a while now.  So who are the other now 14% of our population of those not identifying in one singular religious category but yet not atheist or agnostic, and why on earth would I consider myself to be like them?

Well, 37% of them say they are spiritual.  Check.  68 % of these Nones say they believe in God. Check.  58 % say they have a deep connection with nature and earth. Check.  1 in 5 say they pray daily. Check.[i]  The Nones are searchers, seekers, boundary pressers and question askers, souls unwilling and uninterested in tightly reinforced definitions and denominations. They may very well have deep spiritual encounters in a prayer service, but they will also have them in their yoga class, or walking in the Botanic Gardens. Or listening to stirring music or reading a powerful book.  Check, Check.  They view themselves as open vessels for the meaningful and the sacred in all experiences.  Check.  In many ways, they sound like they'd make great Jews!

What are the true defining characteristics of Jews anyway?  Outside of not believing in more than one God, what other consistent indicator or unifier is there - in origin, in practice, in ethnicity, in language, in sexuality or in family structure?  Jew by birth, Jew by choice, Jew by matrilineal or patrilineal descent? Jew by synagogue membership or not?  Jew by how many days a year or lifetime they attend services? None of these offer a real limitation on what being Jewish means, only what Judaism can mean to a given individual in a given situation.

After all, who among us fits perfectly in the category of any label?  We are by nature complex, amalgams of identities, experiences, histories, practices and beliefs that don't generally fit a cookie cutter definition or picture.  And that, if you asked me, is a pretty wonderful thing – these combinations keep us interesting, diverse, learning and evolving!  If being a None equates to a rejection of black and white, absolutist religion then the real question should be, who among us isn’t a None?

So what at first seems like a pretty ominous report of eventual religious demise instead turns out, I would suggest, to indicate an evolution in the openness  of what faith based and religious communities, including Jewish ones, will someday become, if they aren't already on their way.

Here's the snag:  Many Jewish organizations and Jewish population study publishers have a problem with what I just said.  They want to perpetuate the emotional response from what seems to have become Judaism's historical meta-narrative:  Someone, somewhere is trying to put an end to Judaism by steering us away from our long-held, steady and implied "proper" roots and traditions.  Maybe it is an external demise that's predicted, maybe it’s an internal one, as the latest Chicago and New York Jewish population studies seems to suggest about all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism.   We've gone astray from our tradition - strangers to our faith and the so-called "right" way to practice it.  Failures of perpetuating what our ancestors throughout the ages fought and died for.  And the truth is, these erosion narratives have long worked as catalysts for community solidarity and fundraising.  It is one of the main myths at play when non-Orthodox Jews make financial contributions to organizations like Chabad instead of their own non-Orthodox synagogues or organizations with which they are affiliated – almost as an apologetic and acknowledgement in a sense of their self-perception as somehow a lesser or failed Jew. 

But if the only justification for practicing Judaism, for identifying as “Jewish” is to react against this so-called erosion, then how can it ever be possible to really flourish?  Survival mode never yields much other than stasis at best, and at worst, ironically, it causes the very same erosion it was created to fight against.  I think that is what we are seeing now in the non-Orthodox world, and maybe even the Orthodox world too.  The reality of most Jewish institutions 
for the last 6-7 decades has been one of survivalist mentality.  It’s as if we, at some point, forgot that at its heart, Judaism has always, always been about a relationship between the evolving mundane and ineffable qualities of life, with Jewish traditions and laws not designed for stagnation, to serve solely as anchors of vessels never intended to take to sea, but more as wide, billowing sails, enabling us to traverse and discover more of the endlessly revealing cosmos of which we are an integral, covenantal, evolving part.  Solely surviving inhibits and prohibits thriving.

One key reason the Nones are important is because they are not interested in just surviving, erosion, in anchored vessels that can’t sail; they are wholly invested in yearning, in seeking, in thriving.  They seek deep rooted answers to the significant questions of existence and meaning in the universe.  Their yearnings, I believe, are not unique, but are actually shared by every human being. It’s just that not everyone is comfortable or willing to articulate them in a so-called religious or Jewish context because we, as Jewish institutions, have failed to foster an environment where such questions are the norm.  But these questions are ultimately what we find at the heart of life.

Our desires to know and deepen our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, what we are here to do, ultimately our search for Truth – with a capital T – the asking of and searching for answers to these questions, I’d say prove the very purpose for which God created us in the first place.  And that search is necessarily about wrestling and digging.  The goal is not reaching “a single, eternal realization,” as Rabbi Irwin Kula teaches,  but instead “living out the process of realizing again and again.”[ii] 

Our Jewish teachings are at once plentiful and varied, ripe and evolving, rooted and ethereal.  Ours is a wisdom tradition intended to be lived, wrestled with, imagined, “deconstructed, and re-imagined.”[iii]   We must not be afraid to do just this – to activate and enliven our own yearnings and souls’ quests in this light.  Not to do so surely resigns us to a life of malaise and stagnation.  And that’s not just a modern psychological statement.  Jewish mystics have been talking about it for centuries, originating in Jewish folklore about the Golem of all places, with poignant teachings about the Hebrew word for Truth:  Emet.  Rabbi Kula puts an interesting twist on it. He teaches: If you remove the first letter from Emet, you are left with a different word: “met” – which in Hebrew means death.  As such, the mystics taught that if you only have one side of the story which you believe is absolute truth – with a capital T, you've essentially begun your own demise.  Truth, they inherently understood from a most profound level, has always been more complicated, nuanced, evolving than that. When viewed all together, Emet – aleph, mem, tav - is comprised of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet – as if to suggest that the very composition of the word Truth itself urges us to seek a wider, more inclusive, deeply resonating, and all-encompassing truth.[iv]

Indeed, this call to seek a wider, more inclusive, deeply resonating and all-encompassing Judaism, I believe, is the call to all of us at this precise moment in our evolution as a faith. 
So I’m a Jewish None, and maybe you are too. And maybe we’re all better for that.

[ii] From the teachings and language of Rabbi Irwin Kula in “Yearnings” p.4.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] These teachings on Emet are sourced to any number of places, both ancient and modern.  The play on Emet and Met is a reference to any number of Golem narratives.  See Sefer Yitzirah as an example.  The concept of Emet as comprised of the first, middle, and last letters of the alphabet I first heard mentioned in rabbinical school and have since heard and read mentioned many times, however I do not know the original source of it.  Irwin Kula offers a fitting description of these stories, and it is from his conceptions of the stories that this sermon derives its meaning.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The "Fathomability" of Gun Violence against Children - Remembering Noah Pozner and Aliyah Shell

Like most everyone I know, I am having a really hard time coping with the horrific murders in Connecticut. Since I have young children myself, I keep having these nightmarish visions placing our family there, me waiting at the fire station and my child never returning to me. I see the sweet face of 6 year old Noah Pozner, the youngest murdered victim, and in my mind, his face morphs into the face of my own 5 year old son. He could, after all, have been my son, that young Jewish boy attending elementary school in a "good, safe, suburban school." The nightmare plays over and over again in my head, until I shut it down. Something I, as someone whose child was not actually there, have the luxury of doing. Truth be told, I have absolutely no clue how anyone in that community, especially those whose children or family members were murdered, will ever find any peace. It is beyond fathomable.

"Unfathomable" has, far and away, proved the most common descriptor appearing on the boiling feeds of my Facebook and Twitter accounts since Friday's tragedy. And on every emotional level I know, "unfathomable" seems a fitting descriptor of the cold-blooded mass murder of innocent children and teachers in an elementary school; it goes against the most basic core values and code of social order and decency we have. But the heartbreaking thing is, this event was not "unfathomable." It is certainly "fathomable" - it has been fathomable for a long time now. People have been heartlessly and carelessly or calculatedly murdering or injuring children through gun violence for a long time now.

I vividly remember first hearing about the school shooting in Columbine on April 20, 1999. Sitting in the lunch room of my rabbinical school in Cincinnati, we all sat stunned and declared the shootings "unfathomable." Until one of my professors called our attention to the fact that children were being shot and killed all the time; the difference being that Columbine symbolized the expanded reach of gun violence into middle/upper class white America. He called us out on our own selectivity in personal identification with a certain type of event and victim over another, and challenged us to see the Columbine murder victims as part of a longer series of American tragedies and travesties with a much more expansive trail of murdered and wounded children strewn in its current's wake. One that demanded multi-faceted government, educational, health, social, spiritual, and psychological engagement and action.

In 2011, 700 children were hit by gunfire in Chicago and 66 of them died. There is ongoing mass murder in Chicago's gang-ridden neighborhoods to which most of us living in safer, suburban neighborhoods have closed our eyes or ignored. On Friday, speaking about the victims of the Newtown attack, President Obama stated, "They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." And this is true. It is what makes the murder of children in particular so horrific. But I wonder why the same is not being said too of those children struck down by gun violence in the city of Chicago (or elsewhere). I think about Aliyah Shell, the 6 year old girl murdered by gang crossfire while sitting on her mother's lap, on the porch of their Little Village home earlier this year. "Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of her own" were Aliyah and her family's right, but the same cry was not made nationally when she was murdered, or any of the other of the hundreds of children like her. It is as if we have somehow, as a nation, accepted that for children like Aliyah, such future promise should not be assumed; and that is simply unacceptable. Because birthdays, graduations, weddings, and children should be part of the promise to any and every child. And that future has been stolen from all those slain in the wake of gun violence: black or white, wealthy or poor, shot down in their house or walking on the street, lying down to sleep or waking up, sitting on their front porch or at their desk in their classroom.

Many will take issue with me here.  They will say that linking the Chicago youth murdered to the Newtown tragedy somehow diminishes one or the other.  They will say this is a time of mourning, not of speaking and acting.  They will claim that these are two different problems, one impacting one way and the other a different way. That a school shooting is, by its nature, different than gang related gun violence. On all counts, I disagree. It is indeed a time of mourning, a deepening mourning given these most recent, horrible events.  But one and the other are both inextricably intermingled in what can only be called a community and system-wide web of failure. And that failure isn't rooted in one cause over another. It is immensely complex; it is about gun control and mental health and gang prevention/education and security and anger-management and race and wealth and class and early intervention and public health and, and, and....

If not now, when?  Genesis/Breishit teaches that all humans are created in the image of the Divine, and in the Mishnah, we learn that each life is an entire world. When one destroys a life, they destroy the world. When one saves a life, they save the world. The matter is more urgent now than ever.  So I will not allow myself the anesthetizing ease of time or distraction. And to my own nightmares, I will be mindful to add the face of Aliyah along with the face of Noah. I hope remembering both of these children will remind me of the totality of the real task at hand, and as such, strengthen my personal resolve to be an individual who actively works to create and catalyze change across our communities, within and without, in the areas in which I have a voice and impact. May it be so for each and every one of us who has not yet been caught in the cross-fire directly.

My prayer is that perhaps this most recent horror in Connecticut will be the spark that ignites a system-wide change across all channels, so that the flow of all the murdered souls, whose lives have been cut short too soon, might finally be checked.

Things you can do to start to make a difference now:

Get educated around legislation for safer gun laws/regulation and advocate on its behalf:

Get informed about improving mental health awareness and treatment and advocate on its behalf:

Support organizations that are already working to make a difference:

Feel free to use the comments space below to add your own ideas about how to make a difference.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Wholeness of Being Broken: My Brief Thoughts on Vayishlach

Avraham may have been the first Jew, but Yaakov is the first person to merit the name Yisrael.  This week offers one of of my very favorite Torah portions: Vayishlach.  It is the concluding parasha to the Yaakov and Esav narrative that began three weeks ago, when the twin brothers were conceived and born.  Primed in the womb for strife and conflict, emerging into the world  hand gripped tightly around his brother's heel, he is given the name Yaakov  (a direct link to the Hebrew word for heel: akev.)  Yaakov  - a soul defined by circumstance and experience, lives out much of his young life reacting to the reality that someone or something else has defined for him.  And after questionable birthright sales and maternally manipulated identity theft, Yaakov spends the next part of his life on the run, but not without an odd night vision of ladders and messengers and heights and depths.  Here, he walks away blessed, but nevertheless, bargaining, struggling, loving and learning, about living and choosing and doing on his own terms.  And only after this can he heal wounds ruptured two decades before, but not before an eerie night's encounter with another. When Yaakov, the one who entered the world hand gripped to foot now holds on so tightly, despite injury,  to his adversary/counterpart/self,  he earns a blessing, a new name: Yisrael.  No longer defined by his circumstance, transformed, this man becomes Yisrael - one who wrestles with the Divine.  Ultimately, Yaakov claims his own destiny on his own terms, without the manipulation of anyone else; it is when Yaakov becomes Yisrael that he truly becomes our forefather. With this new name and new purpose, one brother sees the other; with this new name and new purpose,  the brothers embrace and forgive; with this new name and new purpose, the man who was Yaakov becomes Yisrael, and only then is called shaleim - whole.
Wholeness comes with brokenness.  Holiness comes not in the victory, but in the wrestling, the struggling, the steps along the way.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Conflict in Gaza and Israel in 140 Characters or Less? or TheLessons We Can Learn from Berurya and Rabbi Meir

Last night on Twitter, Huffington Post's Religion section asked what people thought about the following post by a @HuffPostReligion follower: "At the heart of all this hate in the Arab-Israeli conflict is religion".  I responded, "Thinking the "heart" of this terribly complicated situation can be explained in 140 chrctrs or less = insult 2 all sides." 
They invited me to offer a larger comment.  Here it is:

I know 2 things for sure.  
1.  Not one of us knows the real, 100% truth of why this horrible violence has broken out between Israel and Gaza.  
2. Offering single word or sentence explanations that assert or place unilateral blame or causality is not only a waste of energy and time, but ultimately only fuels the vitriolic and vengeful fires burning  in the hearts and minds of so many, ultimately moving everyone away from any peace.    

There is absolutely no way to explain a single, simple cause for  this deep, immensely complicated and painful conflict and web of conflicts  in 140 characters or less on Twitter.  Or Facebook.  Or in a You Tube video.  Or a colorful graph or catchy graphic equating rockets raining in Israel to what that would be like in New York City.  Or posting up pictures of victims of violence and war as a means of somehow justifying one side or the other.   

I believe firmly in the right of Israel, like any sovereign nation, to defend itself against violence towards its people.  My heart aches for Israel and Israelis hunkered down in bomb shelters, not knowing when a rocket may be fired or where it may land.  And yet, my heart also aches for Palestinian people hunkered down in their own homes.  A child killed by a rocket or missile's blast in Gaza is no different than a child killed by a rocket or missile's blast in Israel.  The wails of their fathers and mothers reach the same octave heights and depths, and the composition of their tears is identical.  And I'll tell you something: the conversation about who started it will provide no solace to the families of the victims on either side.   The fantasy that long-term solace might be found in blood-revenge only proves a long-standing myth when your loved-one remains dead.  

A couple months back, I re-read a passage in the Talmud from Brachot 10a that has stayed with me over the years.   It details a disagreement between Beruryah and her husband Rav Meir, where Berurya sways his opinion and behavior on a matter of prayer.  I always understood its significance as one of the Talmud giving legitimacy to the opinion and rights of a female voice.  But rereading it at the end of the summer, I decided it is so much more significant than that!

Here is text translated into English in bold with included commentary from the Koren translation unbolded:

There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish.  Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die.  Rabbi Meir's wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse as it is written: "Let sins cease from the land? (Psalm 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? Is it written, "sinners"? "Sins" is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves. Moreover, go to the end of the verse: "and the wicked will be no more." If, as you suggest transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more i.e. that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, if they repent, then the wicked will be no more as they will have repented. Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented.

So Berurya teaches her husband a lesson about mercy over vengeance, life over death.  This is significant not because Berurya is a woman, but because of Berurya's back story.  Berurya herself is a survivor of terrible trauma and terror.  Her father, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion was martyred, along with her entire family over time, and tragically both of her children died in her lifetime as well.  If there were ever a person to justifiably side with vengeance, it would be Berurya.  But instead she invokes mercy, rachamim (as it says in the text), for her voice.  And by intoning the voice of mercy, she changed the action and prayer of her husband, and in doing so, effected peace.  

The voice of rachamim, as difficult and complicated and even painful as it can be, needs to be the loudest sound we intone and hear these very violent days.  Let it drown out the screaming sirens of hate and lies that loom large on the currents of the internet and airwaves.  Neither you nor I will not stop this conflict, but, like Berurya did for her husband, we may change the mind and behavior of  another person from vengeance toward mercy, and who knows what difference that may make for someone else. 

So whatever side, whatever faith:  pray for mercy, pray for peace.  Act in mercy, act in peace.  Speak in mercy and speak in peace. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Spirituality of Concession and Acceptance Speeches and the Quality of Chesed

I'll admit it: I cried last night when they announced the winner of the Presidential election, and not just tears of joy.   I felt, well, bad for the other candidate, his staff, his voters - all the people who had put their heart and soul into his campaign, only to come away defeated.  I wasn't upset about the fact they lost in terms of the country's future; I was sad because I put myself in their shoes, and imagined how I would feel if I were them. And that made me feel - sad.  Because all potential presidents, political parties, and even PACs have one thing in common: they are all made up of living, breathing, feeling people.

And then I started thinking about what both candidates had been thinking and feeling over the course of the evening.  I've never been behind the scenes in a presidential campaign, but I imagine that the Tuesday evening of Voting Day, between say 7pm and 11pm, proves a challenging time.  What do they do while they wait? Do they put on sweat pants?  Do they meditate on the number 270 or play games with maps of red and blue puzzle pieces that they move in and out in different hypothetical sequences?

I imagine part of their time is spent reviewing and prepping speeches, two in particular, one of which they'll have to deliver just a few hours later.  I wonder what that feels like for each of them, reading aloud statements which force them to imagine life moving forward as both winner and loser when the reality remains undetermined. And, because they never seem to do it in real-time when actually delivering one of those speeches, I wonder if that is when they cry?  Cries of victory and loss, exhaustion and exhilaration, all wrapped up in one, because for that moment, they each live in both the world of winner and loser, and they each get a taste of their contender's future reality and their own, all at once.

In many ways, if that speech rehearsing actually occurs, it might be the most deeply spiritual part of the campaign for the candidates.  The 18th Century master Chasidic teacher Simcha Bunem of Przysucha's famously taught:

"Each person should designate two pockets.  In one should be the verse from Genesis 18:27, "I am dust and ashes." And in the other, the passage from Sanhedrin 37, "For my sake was the world created."  According to need, the person should draw out the message from either pocket."

And the 19th Century Chasidic teacher Yechiel of Alexander expanded on that saying:

"When the Evil Impulse wants to show a person how great he or she is, or of the greatness of his or her acts of achievements..., in order to bring him or her into the power of arrogance and self-centeredness, the person should draw out the scrap that reads, 'I am dust and ashes."  When the Evil Impulse wants to snare a person in the net of sadness and depression and show his or her failures, the person would draw strength from the scrap that reads, "For my sake was the world created."

What more direct translation of this could there be than the possession and rehearsal of both an acceptance and concession speech?

I wonder if the defeated candidate will hold on to the boost he likely felt when he practiced his acceptance speech?   And if the presidential-elect will hold on to the self-diminution he likely experienced while practicing his concession words?  And just how long does that “emotional after-burn” stay with them, their respective parties, staff members, and with us? 

Like me, many of my friends were delighted at last night's election results, however not all of them were.  Last night, a high-schooler at my congregation who I know and respect posted on Facebook how devastated he felt and how worried he was about the country and his own future moving forward.  I am saddened for him and those who feel as he does. We don't see eye to eye politically, but we share our country and its leadership together.  What matters to him matters to me because he is someone about whom I care.  But if the two pocket teaching calls us to humility internally, then how do we reach across the proverbial line in action?

In Netivot Shalom, 20th Century commentator Rabbi Sholom Noach Berzovsky raises up the importance of the quality of chesed, which means something like: kindness, loving-kindness, or mercy.  In it, he posits that each day a person does not engage in chesed , the day is rendered null and void, as if the day never happened. Put more simply, lack of chesed stops progress or even moves us backwards.  If we are to move forward in the life of our country toward restoration and improvement for us all, it cannot begin with put downs and actions that discredit and debase the perceived opposition.  Instead, it must start for us with acting on the attributes of kindness and mercy,  putting ourselves in the place of the other, broadening our view through adding theirs to our own, and starting the bridge-building conversations that have been put on hold for the past year.  If we do reach out in chesed, we will, as Berzovsky teaches, build our world again, anew, together.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Have You Donated Yet?

I hear the subways are up and running, albeit on modified schedules, in the New York metro area today - an amazing feat in contrast to the images of them completely submerged in Sandy's turbulent waters just four days ago.  Life goes on, as the saying goes.

But I contrast that with the 65 year old woman from Staten Island whose house literally dissolved to pieces as it was washed away along a reedy-landscape.  As she balances on a path made of 2x4's and pulls through the tangled web of reed-grass and the soaked and now rotting remnants of her pre-Sandy life, I wonder how life will go on for her.

I have nothing wise to contribute to this conversation that hasn't already been said. No insights that offer comfort to those in need.

And while prayers and poems and prose may provide comfort to those of us with access to heat, with our lives and memories still on our home's walls, tucked away safely in closets and drawers, I can't imagine they provide much of anything for those whose lives are literally strewn across landscapes, buried and dissolving in the mucky, toxic ruins of water and mud and ash.

What I know is that each of us who can provide  hands to help must do so.  Each of us who can give money to support the recovery of lives, of homes, of communities, must do so.

Below are a few recommendations.  If you can't decide which to donate to, I would suggest you do as my family did, and contribute to each.  If you would like more recommendations, please message me and I can provide a fuller list.

The American Red Cross
The URJ Disaster Relief Fund
The Jewish Federations of North America Relief Fund
American Jewish World Service (who supports relief work in Haiti - hit first by Sandy - still recovering from the devastating earthquake more than 2 years ago)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teshuvah and Emory University

I am a proud Emory University alum. Graduating with a double major in Judaic Studies and Political Science,  my Emory years were everything I hoped they would be. I learned. I grew. I was challenged by and challenged others. I met professors who not only nurtured my intellect, but pushed me to think differently, to think specifically, to think expansively.  I learned to listen better, to lead better.  I developed meaningful friendships that nurture me still, a decade and a half later. I was part of community that, then and now, wasn't afraid to push itself, to stand up for what was right, even if the dialogues were difficult to have. I learned about the importance of "moral engagement" on all fronts - perhaps the most important and life-influencing part of my time there.

As you likely know, a horrible period in the university's history was recently brought to the surface by the work of Emory professor Dr. Eric Goldstein and one of the former dental students, now Dr. Perry Brickman.  As my former professor Dr. Debra Lipstadt recently reported in The Forward:
"From1948 to 1961, the university’s dean, John Buhler, led Emory’s dental school.Every year, a small number of young Jewish men would be admitted to the school.Then, at Buhler’s instigation, often within a year, many would be flunked out.Some of the luckier ones were forced to repeat a year. Their lives were, in the words of one student, “a living hell.” They knew that irrespective of how hard they worked or how well they succeeded, all would probably be for naught. Many were told by Buhler that “Jews do not have it in the hands” for dentistry. Humiliated, they had to explain to parents, many of whom had sacrificed greatly for their sons’ education, that they had been ejected. Parents asked their sons, “Couldn’t you have worked harder?” Many of these men went on to stellar careers in dentistry; one became a cardiac surgeon. Despite their successes, most never spoke to their families about the shame they had felt."  
When the Anti-Defamation League learned about an admission form that Buhler had created where students had to identify as"Caucasian, Jew, or Other," Buhler resigned, but Emory denied any connection between the two occurrences.  

In some respects, the revelation of a university's anti-Semitic past is nothing new.  But for Emory, which has such deep ties to the Jewish community and leaders in its region (of which many of my own relatives are a part), no less my deep personal connection to the school, this news cut particularly deep. It is why it is hard for me to put into words just how proud I felt when I learned how Emory's administration chose to respond to this history.

When brought to the University's attention by Goldstein and Brickman, Emory responded immediately.  Emory's vice president Gary Hauk said: “We need to be fearless in confronting our past as individuals and an institution. There are often things we regret about our past, but there is the possibility of making amends and of building on the acknowledgment of those things. Part of our vision of Emory is being ethically engaged, and that means  wrestling about what it means to have these warts.” (See the New York Times article here)  As part of that process, what Judaism calls teshuvah (repentance and returning), the university invited many Jewish former students to a private meeting on Wednesday with its president, James W. Wagner, and that same nightit hosted the premiere of a documentary film about the scandal called "From Silence to Recognition."   In Lipstadt's words again: "...former dental students descended upon Emory...They brought spouses, children and grandchildren. The president did not say to them, “It did not happen on my watch, but I am sorry.” He did not say that this discrimination was the practice of the times. He unequivocally acknowledged that such behavior diminished the university, and he bemoaned the fact that it took so long for this apology to come." Instead, Emory's President James Wagner said,"I am sorry.  We are sorry." 

Jewish tradition envisions ultimate teshuvah as essentially comprised of 3 main parts. First: a self-recognition of the wrong that has been done.  Second: a face-to-face apology from the offender to the victims.  Third: actions assuring that the offense will not be committed again.  In her article,Dr. Lipstadt pointed out that Emory's holding the meeting the day after Simchat Torah, the day marking the close of the season of repentance and the true beginning of a new year, was imbued with profound meaning, especially in a day and age when real teshuvah-doing individuals  no less institutions, are hard to find. My Alma-matter stands out as a place of "moral engagement" still today, as a place that models what real teshuvah means.  I could not be prouder to say I went to Emory University.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Yom Kippur 5773 - Getting Real

Maybe it’s because it’s an election year, or because football season is just heating up, or because things in the world are not stable as we’d like them to be, but for whatever the reason, our world seems like a pretty divisive place these days.   It is hard to find what, if any, common thread streams through all of society, binding us together with one shared value or foundation.  But I think I may have found the one force that spans all socio-economic groups, ages, education levels, and even sports team loyalties and political party affiliations?  Want to know what it is?  Reality TV.   You know these shows: American Idol, The Real Housewives, The Amazing Race, and the list goes on and on with unparalleled popularity. My personal favorite right now is Storage Wars, and I watch with bated breath hoping for the day they find a shofar in one of these storage lockers! It seems we just can’t stop watching this so-called “reality”.  Interestingly enough, a little while back, Psychology Today published a study that addressed why. It concluded: “Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too can become celebrities….”[i] Ironically, reality TV provides the ultimate escape from reality, because on some basic level, behind the quest for fame is the human desire to have significance beyond oneself; it is ultimately the quest for immortality. 
Unfortunately, that quest, as we know, is a futile one.  No one lives forever.  We know it’s unrealistic.  But in our world where it is hard to know what is real, where much of our reality seems unfixed and un-centered, it’s hard to find something to hold on to. 
So today, I want us to get real - real in a way that doesn’t indulge a fantasy, that isn’t mind-numbing and simple, but in a way that provides some traction.  But to do that, we’re going to need to get out of our comfort zones a bit, in a way that might be difficult. I promise it will be worth it in the end. OK?
Let’s start with what is arguably the only real religious question there is: If there is an all knowing Divine being we call God who is good, then why do bad things happen?

Yom Kippur’s liturgical centerpiece – Unetaneh Tokef – seems to give us the answer.  You know it – “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day – it is awesome and full of dread.  On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live and who shall die.” It’s really scary, difficult stuff – at least it is for me. But after the long, frightening list, the passage seems to indicate how we can avert our fate – “uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah maavirin et roah hagzeirah – but repentance prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”  In other words: do good stuff, like repenting, praying, and giving charity, and you’ll be ok. Don’t and the consequences are clear.  So the answer to that question we asked before seems to be that if good things happen to people, God is rewarding them and if bad things happen, God is punishing them. For me, and likely for many of you, this concept proves hard to swallow. 

But on the surface, we buy in.  Like the child that learns early on that actions have consequences, we as adults often unintentionally internalize the doctrine of reward and punishment. We ask of some insignificant problem – say getting stuck in traffic when we are already running late – “what did I do to deserve this?” then searching for some offense we must have committed that would yield such a punishment.  “If only I hadn’t yelled at my spouse this morning” or “I should have given the guy outside of Starbucks the change in my pocket instead of ignoring him and walking away.”

Intellectually, we know this is ridiculous.  Road construction and rush hour cause traffic jams, not reckoning and retribution.  But the child’s voice won’t be silenced, and we find ourselves plagued by bad answers to a most difficult question.   This, of course, is especially hard when it isn’t just a petty problem but when something truly devastating – soul crushing happens.  When horrible things happen for reasons we can’t explain, we default to the traditional interpretation: it must be a punishment. Maybe we look to blame ourselves – what did I do to cause this or what could I have done to avert it, when most of the time, the answer is nothing.[ii]
And as such, we often jump to the false conclusion that either God is cruel and abusive or the world is devoid of purpose and meaning.  And either way, unfortunately, people erroneously tune out of Judaism and tune in to things like reality TV.

But here’s the thing: there is actually a different option!

In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an incredible, healing book offering a Jewish response to his own family tragedy: the death of his young son from a horrible disease.  The book has remained a best-seller for over 3 decades.  Everyone thinks that the book is called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  But the book is actually entitled:  When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  Not “why” but “when.” Kushner wasn’t interested in the root causes of something that happened in the past; he was interested in what possibilities exist for our responses. 

What if Judaism and Jewish practice weren’t about blindly following an all-knowing God meting out judgments at will?  What if Judaism wasn’t a system to help us gain reward and avoid punishment at all? – and what if instead these High Holy Days, specifically Yom Kippur, served to teach us exactly why Judaism is so incredibly relevant, meaningful, and necessary for our world today?  And it’s all wrapped up in just one liturgical poem that we’ve been reading wrong the entire time.
So, at this point, if you are a cynic or a seeker or anything in between, I’d ask you to suspend your disbelief and just for a moment, forget anything you ever learned about Judaism and God in Hebrew School, and let’s go back to Unetaneh Tokef ‘s frightening statement about the sealing of fate and the troubling  list that follows.  What if this list wasn’t intended to be understood literally, but rather metaphorically, to remind us that so many of the events in our world are beyond explanation.  They aren’t moral declarations about our lives, but they remind us that there are occurrences that are sealed from us. As one of my own teachers says, they are “…sealed off from our control, sealed off from our best intentions and best efforts. We will be struck by diseases that we have done nothing to invite.  Hurricanes and flashfloods and human evil will wreak havoc, shattering the foundations of our homes and our most treasured assumptions.”[iii] The list reminds us that regardless of our successes, our appearances, our health, or our zip codes, we are all vulnerable, dependent, and finite. It’s incredibly di
difficult stuff to swallow, no less say aloud, but it is real nevertheless.
Here’s the twist though. Unlike secular culture that views this self-limitation as failure, Judaism sees it as opportunity, blessing even.  Remember that troubling refrain: Repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree? Want to know something? It’s translated wrong.  Translated literally, it says: Repentance, Prayer and charity help the hardship of the decree pass.  These three actions don’t impact the length of our life or alter that which is out of our control.  What they do is help us control what we can!  While describing the horrific realities of his experiences at Auschwitz, theologian Victor Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way…Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”[iv]

This is what Yom Kippur asks of us – what is real in our life?  What is the core of our life?  Are we living by it? Are we moving toward it?

Did you ever wonder why tradition picked these three actions – repentance, prayer, and charity?  I think it might have to do with the fact that the three chosen here each entail a diminishing of the self. 

Think about it: Repentance or teshuvah, ultimately a returning to the best of who we can be, ironically requires a diminishing of who we are and our ego.  To be in true relationship with another, and to return to who we really are, we can’t take up all the space. 

Prayer or tefillah involves a similar phenomenon.  Whether you just say the words, direct them to God or to the community, as Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, to pray “is to forget the self…In prayer, we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”[v]

And charity or tzedekah – this is of course most obvious.  By giving to the other, we literally give away a part of ourselves – whether its our money or our time. Only through our substance becoming less can something greater occur.

These three practices don’t erase our pain, but rather, they move it, convert it into something that might be transformative for someone else, and then for us as well.  Want to know what else these three tasks do for us – they let us write and seal our own legacies!  Because we may not live forever, but our legacies do! And that we can very much control!

I heard this story in a TED talk that Brad Meltzer – the best selling author– gave last year, where he spoke about the power of legacy leaving.  In it, he told the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a Japanese businessman who on August 6, 1945 took a business trip to Hiroshima.  The same day the first atomic bomb detonated there. He survived.  Injured but alive, he saw the devastation around him and decided to return to his home town - Nagasaki – where three days later the second bomb landed.  He survived again, and spent the rest of his life talking, writing, and teaching about the importance of peace and the dangers of nuclear arms.  Before he died 2 years ago, he wrote that he saw his life and work like a baton, and that every time the baton was passed, it helped form a raft for others – a raft that might lift people above the turbulent waters of war for generations to come.[vi]

Our world does not have to be meaningless.  Each and every one of us can bring a sense of the Divine into the world and raise up every bit of that goodness, not just regardless of, but influenced by any tragedy or trauma that happens. It is why 20th century master Theologian Martin Buber got it right when he said that God isn’t above us, God is between us.  The Divine exists in the space between people. 

Why will I take Judaism, not just over reality TV, but over just about anything else, any day?  Why does Judaism matter now more than ever?  Because Judaism won’t change the dates at the beginning or end of our lives, but it will, in a most real way, let us live our lives and traverse whatever realities of life come our way better, giving real purpose to that which would otherwise remain meaningless.  

Modern psychologists spend a lot of time trying to figure out what causes people to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives, regardless of their circumstances.  Psychologist and researcher Dan McAdams teaches that at every major turning point in our lives, we have the choice to make our life’s story one of contamination or one of redemption.  Contamination stories occur when a person encounters troubles and allows them to dominate their lives.  Redemption stories, on the other hand, take a very different turn.  Redemption stories occur when a person encounters troubles, but chooses to grow from them, give from them, to let them impact the future for the better.  And the interesting thing about this concept is that the ultimate outcome of the story isn’t what matters.[vii]   A story, even one without a happy ending, can nevertheless be a redemption story.  All Jewish stories are redemption stories, even if they don’t end with “and they lived happily ever after.”

At the very end of the traditional Unetaneh Tokef there is a beautiful verse.  For some reason, our Machzor doesn’t include it, but it reads, “Ushmeinu karata v’shmecha” “You, God, named us after You.”  It means that our names endure; as God endures. Our legacies live beyond us.  Our actions grounded in the work of connecting to others outside of ourselves, our work to make the world better not for ourselves but for others, these have timeless significance “even in a world that sometimes breaks our hearts.” 

And so this beautiful poem by renowned ethicist Michael Josephson: “What Will Matter.”
“Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end…
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.  It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
So what will matter?  How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is … not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew but how many will feel a lasting loss when you are gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those you loved.
What will matter is not how long you lived, but how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.”[viii]

Because the essence of who we are and what we do for the good is Eternal, and in that very real way, we live on forever.  And in that we see the very real promise of Un’taneh Tokef, of these High Holy Days, and the very heart of our faith.  

In this New Year of hope, and goodness, and blessing for us all, Shanah Tovah.


Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence A, PhD, Ed. Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef.  Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2010

Lew, Alan.  This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.  Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 2003

McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: The Guildford Press. 1993.

McAdams, Dan P.  Josselson, Ruthellen, Leiblich, Amia, Ed.  Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  2001.

[ii] Hoffman, Dr. Joel M.  “How Was Your Flight.” Who by Fire, Who by Water.  P. 95.
[iii] Stern, Rabbi David. “Moral Matters: The Faith of Un’taneh Tokef”. Ibid.  p 173.
[iv] Frankel, Victor.  Man’s Search for Meaning. P. 65.
[v] Heschel, Joshua.  Man’s Quest for God. P. 15.
[vii] Based on the work of David McAdams. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

The High Holy Days, the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Rotten Tomatoes

(Published originally by the Huffington Post)
As Jews, we find ourselves in one of the most spiritually intense periods of the year the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah the 10 Days of Repentance carrying us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  Our tradition envisions that the gates of Divine Judgment open on Rosh Hashanah and close at Yom Kippurs end, necessitating reflection and atonement for our sins in the past.  The Jewish liturgy offers an expansive confessional section called Vidui where the community verbally confesses together to any number of offenses.  This year, Ill be adding a verse to list: Al cheit shechatanu lfanecha for the sin we have committed against You by mindlessly reaping the benefits of slavery. 
September 22, 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln issuing the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first major step to rid the scourge of slavery in America forever.   In truth, though, the fulfillment of the ideal that the document envisioned has never been realized on American soil.  Systems of indentured servitude and forced labor continued throughout the decades, and although slavery is certainly illegal today, it endures nevertheless, and in fact proves just as, if not more brutal, albeit much more hidden.
According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 17,000 foreign nationals
are trafficked into the United States and enslaved annually. Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. They do not come to knowingly be enslaved. In order to afford the journey, they pay their life savings and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondageBy definition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, but it is the slave trade.[i]

Where can we find evidence of this slavery?  Look no further than American tomatoes. 
90% of the fresh tomatoes consumed in our country between November and May come from Florida and are likely harvested by forced labor. These workers picking tomatoes do not earn wages based on the government-established minimum hourly wage.  Instead, their income is based on how many tomatoes they can pick, and the rate of compensation is stunningly low.  Workers must pick and haul a staggering 2.5 tons of tomatoes in order to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day. In addition, as Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights pointed out, Forced labor and slavery in Florida is just the extreme end of a continuum of worker exploitation that includes sexual harassment, dangerous exposure to pesticides, wage theft, and violence.[ii] 

Enter the Coalition of Immakolee Workers in Florida, a worker-driven grassroots organization working to legally end this horrific reality through its Fair Food Program.  The market-based initiative seeks to improve the tomato harvesting wage floor and institutionalize a voice for farmworkers by requiring large food retailers to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, to pay a penny more per pound for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to buy only from growers who meet those higher standards.[iii]

Many retailers have signed on to the Fair Food Program, including Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and McDonalds.  One notable hold-out however is Chipotle Mexican Grill.  Despite the fast-food chains claim of providing sustainable, integrity-based ingredients in its food, there is no way to assure that a Chipotle tomato was not harvested by slave labor.  Chipotle has said that they will pay the extra wage to the workers and only purchase tomatoes from appropriate producers, but to date, they refuse to sign a Fair Food Agreement, thereby refusing to commit to transparency, accountability, and third-party monitoring to assure their actions match their commitments. 

The process of true repentance demands not only a verbal pronouncement of the offense, but among other things, a commitment to assure that the offense will not be committed again.  We can all engage in this process by strongly encouraging Chipotle to take the next step and sign on to the Fair Food Agreement.  You can do this by taking a letter to the manager of your local franchise or clicking here for information.  Among the countless Jewish teachings mandating fair treatment for the slave and other disenfranchised among us, Deuteronomy 24:14 commands: You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.  Whether grounded in the teachings that have carried the Jewish people over the millennia or from the values written down by Abraham Lincoln a century and half ago, the ideal of freedom for all is still one, not only to which we must aspire, but one for which we are responsible in assuring is made fully real.