Posts Tagged ‘ …wow. ’

Chinning the Bar

2002.04.15
By

One of the reasons why I love my wife so much is that our conversations range from the silly to the serious.

On the silly end are our discussions about the secret lives of animals: their tea-parties, nutritional choices, and the songs they sing to their children. But these are mysteries which cannot be discussed here.

At the other side of the spectrum are the serious conversations about life, perception, Judaism, socialization, etc. Many of these latter talks will no doubt leak onto this website, since they provide me with an endless pool of inspiration for my future rabbinate. Thus:

Last night, we attended a concert in Marin County featuring our favorite female a capella group. Their performance was preceded by a talk by a woman who has made it her life’s work to translate Biblical and liturgical works into more lively and gender-inclusive forms.

I thoroughly enjoy her translations, and support her thesis that tradition holds a place for creativity, but took mild exception to her statement that the ancient liturgy doesn’t speak to modern Jews. As modern Jews who love ancient liturgy, my wife and I couldn’t help discussing this on the way back to Sonoma.

What we came up with was this: Almost by definition, there will always be a tension between a religious tradition and the individual practitioner thereof. Essentially, in many ways, the tradition will both challenge and validate the individual practitioner.

There seems to be a tendency among modern spiritual types to reject challenge in favor of validation — whether because of bad childhood religious experiences, or perceived “patriarchal” theologies, or self-centeredness, or something else.

Challenge is what makes us grow as individuals — forcing us to live outside our heads and predilections. Validation is what tells us that we’re doing okay. In (what I define as) a “true” spiritual path, one cannot exist without the other — unalloyed challenge is restrictive, while unalloyed validation can foster delusions.

I personally love the challenge of ancient liturgy as much as I love the challenge (read: the “ugly and difficult parts”) of Torah — because life is often ugly and difficult, too. The challenge for me in seeing “kedusha Torah” (sanctity of Torah) is the same as seeing “kedusha chayyim” (the sanctity of life). As a good and holy friend of mine says whenever anything awful happens to him, “It’s all part of the training.” (Which once prompted another friend of mine to reply, “I don’t know what kind of ungodly catastrophe Mark’s in training for, but I’m going to his house when it happens.”) But not everybody wants or welcomes a challenge — many prefer to ignore the ugly parts and focus on the “good.” But that’s bubbe meise (nonsense) — if we don’t recognize the ugly, how can we transform it to the beautiful? And isn’t that what partnering with Hashem really entails?

Of course, I realize that I am generalizing somewhat, even though I’m basing the above on direct observation. But I think that one challenge in building a 21st Century rabbinate is going to be the ability to validate while challenging — to use Reb Shakespeare’s words, “Trick into learning, with a laugh.”

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Peace Through Superior Prayerpower

2002.04.12
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Well, the “shalom service” was either very wonderful or very weird, depending on whether you want to think about it quantitatively or qualitatively.
From the former perspective, it was weird because — either despite or because of or having nothing to do with advance email-list publicity by my rabbi and I — only two members of our congregation showed up. Also in attendance were some very dear, longtime friends of Ann’s and mine from our RenFaire tribe and a woman and a couple who needed, in light of the matzav, to be with other Jews and happened to find out we were having a service.
Qualitatively, however, it was very profound. We did the straight Erev Shabbat I service from our Reform siddur, and I never heard such loud and earnest davening. The d’var shalom went over pretty well (I’ll post it after this entry); people really had a need to share their fears and hopes. Mostly, we spoke about how wrenching it is that Jews are fighting Jews as a community well as within our own hearts. We also spoke about how none of us want Psalm 83 to be a part of our personal or comunal theology. We all cried a little, as is natural when speaking from the kishkes. Afterwards, we laughed a little too. Everyone was profoundly grateful for the chance to come together. And I am, as always, profoundly grateful to Hashem for allowing me to enable that to happen.
That quantitaive vs.qualitative thing … Despite my firm belief that people should only come to services if they want to, I freely admit to a bit of disappointment that more people didn’t attend. But more importantly, perhaps, is what a difference it made in the lives of those who did attend.

Here is my d’var shalom. When I delivered it, I expanded a bit on my own personal feelings:


D’var Shalom – Erev Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5762

Last December, our religious-school director Susan Jebrock and I attended a meeting of Jewish educators in San Francisco. The lead speaker was a rabbi named Avram Infeld, a big macher in Israeli educational circles. He’s an amazing speaker, one of those larger-than-life characters straight out of a Leon Uris novel or Zorba the Greek.

Among other gems, he told us always to teach value-laden terms in Hebrew, not English. “What does ‘tzedakah’ mean?” he asked us. “Charity,” we answered. “WRONG!” he thundered. “Charity is what you give because of how it makes you feel! Tzedakah is what you give because it’s the right thing to do!”

The word “shalom” has nuances that don’t translate well into English. More than simply “peace,” it carries connotations of “wholeness,” “harmony,” and “integrity.” Shalom isn’t so much a lack of war as what you get when everything is in balance, with no wobbling.

That’s what’s so important about the word “shalom” – since it also means “wholeness,” it necessarily contains the opposite of “peace.” But only in balance with everything else.
We are the balance point where it all comes together.
But to bring it all together, and do that as seriously and sincerely as we can, we have to clearly look and listen to both arms of the balance.

I’d like to read two psalms right now which apply to the matzav, or current Israeli-Arab situation. Both are about as different as they can be.

- Psalm 83. This uses some obscure references, but rather than excerpt them, I’ve left them in for sake of the meter.
- Psalm 122.

I’ve read those tonight partly because they illustrate two ends of the tunnel we seem to be in, and mostly because I myself have been wobbling between those two extremes, on an almost hourly basis, for the past several months. You are the first people to whom I’ve told this other than my wife. I am not used to or comfortable being filled with rage and vengeance; I don’t like it one bit. Hatred and anger do not come easily to me. I prefer to take the bigger view, the view that shows us how to keep human beings from fighting over nothing and everything at the same time. I prefer balance to wobbling.

That’s not always easy. Talking about it makes it easier. Being listened to makes it easier still.

If anyone wants to say anything and would like us to listen, now would be a good time. I only ask that we refrain from discussing political solutions, and stick to airing our fears and hopes – starting our sentences with “I feel” instead of “we should” or “they should.” Remember, the Talmud records the losing opinions, too, since we can learn from them and may reconsider them as times change. We don’t yet know what the losing opinions are in this situation – so let’s try to value and respect these differences, even those that may remain unspoken.

Most of the last part — “I only ask … fears and hopes” and “Remember … remain unspoken” was written by my rabbi. She’s better at saying that sort of thing than I am. I closed with two poems by Yehuda Amichai, “I May I Rest In Peace” and the following “Appendix to (Isaiah’s) Vision of Peace” (translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt):

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

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Fringey Blue

2001.11.14
By

from a pre-Blogger blog

Tzitzit under blue jeans feel like nothing, and yet feel like everything.

They feel like nothing because the four-cornered cotton garment to which they’re attached is extremely light. I forwent the type which snap or stitch under the arm, since a) I didn’t think it necessary and b) we’re having a slack financial tide right now (meaning that the basic style is less expensive). The tzitzit, intricate knots which remind us of mitzvot (sacred obligations) like strings wrapped around our souls’ fingers, look a little like yellow spaghetti. The serape-like garment to which they’re attached fits nicely under my shirt, although tucking it into my pants is a bit tricky — I prefer wearing them under an untucked shirt, where they can dangle free.

But this is where they “feel like everything.” I wear a kippa full-time, and have for nearly two years. But that’s not a mitzva, it’s a custom. It publicly identifies me as a Jew, and forces me to be on my best behavior when I’m around other people. It’s also something of a conversation piece: I’ve explained kashrut to a curious Egyptian man at a morning coffeeshop, compared the Aramaic and Hebrew versions of the first verse of Genesis with the proprietor of a local 7-Eleven, and been greeted by more Jews than I can remember right now.

Tzitzit, however, are different — they’re a mitzva, something we’re supposed to do according to Torah. However, in my life, they’re something strictly between me and G-d — a quiet reminder, not an advertisement of piety. (Sadly, in the circles in which I travel, I think they’d be perceived as an advertisement of a different sort.) I’ve only been wearing them for five days now, and already I “feel more like a Jew.” That’s pretty weird to see myself writing that, since I tend to see “Jew” as something you are and do, not something you feel. But I guess that’s part of the mystery of “na’aseh v’nishmah” (“we will do and we will hear,” or — loosely translated a la Ivan Stang — “Laugh. See?” It’s what our ancestors replied when Moshe Rabbeinu said that G-d had some instructions for them [Exodus 24:7].) There are things we do which define us to ourselves. For me, “being a Jew” and not wearing tzitzit, or laying tefillin, or praying every day, or studying Torah, or seeking to be my best and see the best in others, feels to me like “being an American” but not voting. Grasping the shell of the thing but not savoring its essence. Tzitzit are definitely of the essence. (At least, for me. Others, G-d willing, will have a different view of the notional constraints within which to conduct oneself Jewishly.)

We’re either “on the bus or off the bus,” as the now-late Ken Kesey once said. Given that, the question isn’t “How many people can we take with us?” but rather “What will we share with each other along the way?”

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Haiku 911

2001.09.11
By

IT’S ALL DIFFERENT, NOW.
But as the smoke palls the sky
The flowers still bloom

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