Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Shunning

This morning, it suddenly struck me that shunning seems to play a very large (too large) and seemingly increasing role in modern disagreement. No, I'm not talking about garden variety disagreement and/or criticism, even the vociferous kind; for an example of heated disagreement, see RI's Catholic Bishop's criticism of Nelson Mandela's stance on abortion, and the ensuing uproar.  For an example of shunning, see Bishop Tobin's refusal to sit with interfaith leaders who approve of civil same-sex marriage. Instead of merely disagreeing, shunning and posturing seem to be on the rise.

Just recently, Swarthmore Hillel entered the fray with Hillel International, launching the Open Hillel movement in protest against Hillel's policy proscribing speakers in favor of boycott or divestment from Israel; Hillel's policy, rightly or wrongly, had been to shun such speakers.  Presumably, this was a method of laying down the law and constructing firm lines on the limits of acceptable debate.  On the question of divestment, it's abundantly clear that Hillel is in the right; as to whether it's prudent to forbid such speakers from speaking at Hillel, I'm not sure.

In other headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's eloquent Prime Minister, failed to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.  Though the official reason given related to the cost and expense of attending, it's fairly clear that Netanyahu's distaste for Mandela's support of the Palestinians and criticism of Israel must actually have been the decisive factor.

At the installation for the new President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a new Rabbinic seminary devoted to modern Orthodoxy, there was an over-discussed and scandalized panel involving Rabbis of multiple Jewish denominations.  Having this kind of panel prompted immediate condemnations, with many boycotting the installation.  Oh, the topic that prompted a public storm - "Training New Rabbis for a New Generation."

It doesn't come close to stopping there.  In a recent high profile move, the American Studies Association endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.  In response, many are suggesting a counter "boycott of the boycotters" through new legislation in the knesset, Israel's legislative body.  Last year, I myself even briefly joined into the craze, publishing my reasons for boycotting a dinner sponsored by RIETS, my own esteemed and beloved rabbinic seminary.

So what are we to make of all of the shunning?  Clearly, each of us has lines of support whereby even associating with a particular event, person, institution, whatever it might be, compromises our integrity and makes us complicit in a way which we naturally abhor.  In some ways, it is a healthy sign of conscience, integrity, and an affirmation that life is valuable, important, and yes, worth the fight.

On the other hand, the inability and unwillingness to hear or discuss positions with which we strongly disagree is troubling.  For one, it fits into a larger trend of polarization.  For a plethora of demographic, psychological, technological, and other reasons, humans increasingly tend to read, listen to, and speak with those who espouse like-minded thinking.  This creates an affirmation bias, distorts our understanding of the range and depth of views held, and stifles our own growth.  In my own life, I can recall many occasions where my thinking has gradually evolved, often due to being challenged by those with a different perspective. Ultimately, willing to listen, think, entertain, and even disagree represents a certain humility of the individual. It is in this spirit that our sages declared: Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death (Pirkei Avot, 2:5).

At its core, shunning represents a declaration of moral certitude (sometimes necessary and required).  In normal civil discourse, it is understood that well-intentioned intelligent individuals may, in a good faith, come to different conclusions.  We respect and honor each person's right to think, reason, and act, embodying the best of the Divine image in man.  Civil disagreement is predicated on individuals truly valuing each other's autonomy and individuality.  Shunning represents a temporary change in the rules, and is predicated not on respect but a paternalistic assertion of relative moral certitude.

Of course, we're all going to have different red-lines, and disagree as to which particular situations require taking a stronger stand.  Still, it seems that on the whole, it's better to err on the side of civil discourse, and act with a strong preference to shun shunning.      


Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanksgivukkah: Sukkot in December

This is a reprint of a post I wrote for the 401j blog, the new Jewish collaborative of Jews in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s in Rhode Island.

Most years, Hanukkah clearly takes second place to Christmas in the annual “My Winter Holiday Is Better than Yours” competition. This year the tides seem to be turning, if only just this once, due exclusively to the coincidental concurrence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. While Jews across the country are certain to be celebrating Thankgivukkah with their menurkeys and cranberry jelly doughnuts, I’m also fairly certain that most non-Jews will be celebrating Thanksgivukkah instead of Thanksgiving this year as well. It turns out that combining a religious winter holiday with a cherished national holiday (complete with school breaks, vacation, football, and the biggest sales of the year) is the perfect way to increase the market and help a holiday gain exposure.
Even Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist commenting on the ironic calendric coincidence. As he satirically noted during a recent show, “Hanukkah celebrates the struggle of an oppressed people’s fight against invading conquerors, while Thanksgiving is about our healthy nurturing relationship with the Indians.”  I’m sure Colbert is well aware that satire was actually one of the hallmarks of Hellenistic culture.
All of this got me thinking – what if there’s more to Thanksgivukkah than aggressive Jewish marketing with catchy holiday hybrids. Perhaps, just maybe, Colbert was on to something when he suggested that the stories are in fact polar opposites, and that the pilgrims may as well have starred as Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks, while the Native Americans were in fact the indigenous oppressed religious and ethnic minority.
Pondering all of this led me to try and shed my western/democratic tinted reading glasses (to some extent, anyway) and consider the story again anew. One of the striking features of the extra-biblical Book of Maccabees is that there is absolutely no mention of Hanukkah’s most popular story, the miracle of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight days. There are lengthy descriptions of Hasmonean revolt, the battles, the decrees, the rededication, seemingly everything . . . but Hanukkah’s most popular miracle is mysteriously and unmistakably absent.
If not for the oil, why, pray tell, did the Maccabees celebrate for eight days? The Book of Maccabees offers a most surprising suggestion. That year, the Jews had missed the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot, the eight day harvest festival, as the sacrificial altar and Temple had not yet been purified from foreign Hellenist control. The 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev happened to be the third anniversary of the Hellenist takeover of the Temple; this included the obviously offensive sacrifice of pigs and the construction of a statute of Zeus in the holiest chamber of the Temple. The Maccabees decided to rededicate the Temple exactly three years to the date after control had been lost. But what should the rededication ceremony look like?
When Moses had initially presided over the construction of the mishkan, a portable worship center designed for the desert, the initiation ceremony lasted eight days.  When King Solomon first dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, the ceremony lasted eight days and coincided with the celebration of Sukkot (1 Kings 8:66).  Naturally drawing from these earlier models, the Maccabees also intuited that an eight day celebration was in order.
Sukkot has two essential themes.  On the one hand, it is an agricultural harvest festival, a chance to thank God for the food and fruits of the land.  On the other, it is an existential holiday representing God’s presence and protection in the history and lives of the Jewish people. It is for this reason that King Solomon originally chose to dedicate the first Temple on Sukkot, as the point of the building was to serve as a tangible symbol of God’s presence in daily life.
Sukkot was the perfect model for the Maccabee’s celebration of Hanukkah. They had missed Thanksgiving (i.e. Sukkot), and were craving the opportunity to formally express deep gratitude for the gifts they had been blessed with during those most trying war-filled years. At the same time, the themes of Sukkot meshed well with the rededication of a Temple whose presence was meant as a conduit for God’s holy presence in our lives. Therefore, the first Hanukkah was actually Thanksgivukkah, the celebration of Chanukah and Sukkot – the Book of Maccabees tells us that they celebrated exactly as they were accustomed to do on Sukkot.
I’ve lived in Providence for a little more than two years now, and as I reflect on what I’m grateful for this Thanksgivukkah (I really do dislike the term), the people in my life are at the top of the list. Providence embodies a creative and collaborative energy amongst genuinely interesting and interested individuals.  There is an abundance of talent and diversity, but most importantly, genuineness. It’s one of the best “hidden” secrets in the country.  Like the Maccabees during this same season so many years ago, we’re both free yet obliged to create our own rituals of gratitude and construction during this time of transition and rededication. I am truly excited that, working together, we’ll build the edifices that enable us to enhance and sustain community, forming lasting relationships engaged in meaningful endeavors together. I can’t wait to see the variety of lights we can add together; I’m so deeply thankful for that invisible miraculous Spirit gently guiding us forward and the hard work of so many investing wisely, even aggressively, in a bright future.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What's In a Name?

(This post is paraphrased from a sermon I recently gave at Congregation Beth Sholom)

As Juliet famously asks and then answers:

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Lately, I've been doing some thinking about how we name things.  It started with the government shutdown. As some may have noticed, Fox News decided that the "shutdown" wasn't really, as many (but not all) government workers continued to function in a somewhat normal capacity.  Instead, they consistently (and annoyingly) referred to the shutdown as the "Government Slimdown."  Though I can't quite place why, this seems to me to be comparable to the Weather Channel's decision to name winter storms like they do Hurricanes and tropical systems.  Does anyone remember Winter Storm Athena?

Then, I read Rabbi Avi Weiss's article in the latest issue of Conversations, a quarterly publication published by Rabbi Marc Angel's Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  In the essay, he discusses themes relating to womens' experience in Judaism and the synagogue.  In Orthodox and even non-Orthodox synagogues, communal prayer services are frequently referred to as minyan, the Hebrew word meaning quorom; in this case, ten adult Jewish men is the minimum quorum for an official prayer service according to traditional Jewish law.  Rabbi Weiss argues that this trend bespeaks a bias against women's prayer and inclusion:

"The term used for public tefillah also makes a difference.  Although the word minyan is commonly used to refer to a prayer service, my preference is to use tefillah.  Minyan, in Orthodoxy, includes men but does not count women.  Tefillah transcends gender.  Women are not part of the quorum of ten, but tefillah describes an experience in which both [men and women] are critical participants."

Then, my father-in-law Dr. Neil Baine informed me of an article that examined how sleep essentially helps to detoxify the brain and remove waste products.  To many children (we've all engaged in and witnessed the tantrums) and adults alike, sleep has some serious negative connotations.  Going to sleep means missing out on important events destined to occur as soon as the eyes are shut.  A perfect opportunity to rename and re-frame sleep, I thought.  Since then, I've been floating names like "Brain Detox" and "Rejuvenation Time", in an effort to redefine sleep as preparation for what's yet to come instead of a retreat from the exhaustion caused by that which has already been; though useful, both names are a little too cumbersome to take the title from the mono-syllabic and highly entrenched "sleep".

Turning my attention to prayer, I agree with Rabbi Weiss that minyan is probably not the most thoughtful term to use.  Not only does it subtly exclude women, it doesn't really capture anything about the essence of the prayer experience itself; this, for me, is the bigger strike against the term.  "Prayer" works well, though sometimes, using a new term helps to shock in a way that can cause reflection and break habitualized rote.

In his Book the B'er Hagolah, the famed sage the Maharal explains as follows:

"When you think about the etymology of the word tefillah (prayer), [you see] that it is from פלל . . . and this is well known.  As Rashi explains (Breishit 48:11), the meaning of the word is מחשבה (thought) . . . the language of tefillin (phylacteries) are also from thought . . . this is so because a prayer requires intention and thought that God, may He be blessed, desires and wants it to be so, and this is what we call prayer, that a person's thoughts and desires desire and request the good."  

According to the Maharal's fascinating understanding of prayer, it is a time for us to think about what it is we want, and see if it measures up to that which is truly good from God's broad perspective.  Since reading this Maharal, I've been trying to use prayer as a time to prioritize, soul search, and measure up that day's to-do list against the concept of divinely ordained goodness.  Not a small task.  From this perspective, prayer might aptly be called "Thinking Time" or "Reflection."  For myself, I'm going to run with "Thinking Time" and see how it affects my experience of prayer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Who's a Jew?

(Israel's newly elected Chief Rabbis)

Once again, this hotly debated question has reared its head.  Rabbi Avi Weiss, a long time passionate advocate for the State of Israel, Soviet Jewry, and now increased women's participation in Orthodox Judaism has had his letter certifying someone's Jewish identity rejected by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (  This kind of thing happens when a Rabbi isn't on "the list," a list that no one's ever actually seen and that no one seems to know how you get on it.  There are usually about three reasons that a Rabbi might be off the list, bureaucracy, being unknown, or actual ideological rejection.  I've had this happen to me before as well, and I'm almost positive it's because no one in the Office of the Chief Rabbinate knows who I am (nor should they).

I wanted to take a step back and share some pragmatic, experiential, and theoretical thoughts on the situation as it now stands, in the hopes that it will help foster a productive discussion, clear up confusion, and also help American Jews better navigate what is surely a broken system.

First, it's important to note the distinction between standards for aliyah (moving to and becoming a citizen of Israel) and standards for marriage and the like.  Aliyah is governed by the Law of Return and the Misrad HaP'nim, the Ministry of the Interior.  They accept as Jewish for the purposes of moving to Israel anyone recognized as Jewish by a recognized Rabbi of any of the major streams of Judaism, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  A letter from just about anyone's Rabbi is enough for aliyah; even I've written three just this week.

Religious services, however, most prominent among them marriage, are run by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, not the Ministry of the Interior.  Practically speaking, if you want to get married in Israel, you have to register with the Rabbanut (the brand new Tzohar Bill just made that easier for Israeli Jews) and prove that you are both Jewish and fit for marriage (single/legally allowed to be married).  This is decided by the Rabbanut according to particular Orthodox interpretations of Jewish Law.  Our discussion doesn't touch upon aliyah, but rather the question of who can be married in Israel.

Now, the idea that the Israeli Rabbanut, so far removed from diaspora Rabbis and diaspora Judaism, can effectively put together a comprehensive and inclusive "list" of qualified diaspora Rabbis is just plain silly.  Distance, both geographically and culturally, suggests that this is impossible.  How are the lists to be updated?  Who's to be included?  Is it based on where a particular Rabbi received his ordination?  Is it about the fitness of his current theological worldview?  Rabbi Avi Weiss has suggested that the latter might be one reason he's now apparently off the list.   I don't have a better alternative, but we should definitely drop the idea of a list.  Oh, and when congregants find out that their Rabbi is not on the list, and thereby get a letter rejecting their Jewish identity from the official Rabbinate of the Jewish State, some take it personally, feeling as though their Jewish identity has suddenly been impeached by a faceless bureaucracy.  That shouldn't be surprising, and the practice should stop.  It is the unnecessary cause of serious damage and distancing between Jewish people and the leaders of their faith.  The most frustrating part of the whole thing is that the Rabbanut doesn't usually mean to offend, it's simply that most American Rabbis are not on the list, and they're merely following procedure.  Everyone means well, but American Jews are repeatedly victimized by a poorly designed procedure.

Pragmatically, there is an "answer" to this crisis.  The Beth Din of America ( is a professional and superbly run Jewish court located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.  I had the pleasure of serving as an intern there for more than two years.  During my years there, the interns were largely responsible for producing Teudot Ravakut v'Yahadut, certificates affirming Jewish identity and single status, with the approval of the Menahel (Lead Administrator) Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann and his talented staff.  There's a small fee for the process, and requests from all types of Jews from the United States and beyond were and are handled with professionalism, diligence, humanity, and compassion.  No one is denied their Jewish identity for bureaucratic or political reasons, and the staff make every effort to ascertain whether someone is Jewish.  Best part of all, they have streamlined certificates accepted and known to the Rabbanut, and will handle claims from all over the country.

A personal confession - every time I read about these kinds of identity issues, I become so frustrated I want to pull out my hair.  The Beth Din's letters are never denied, and they can help absolutely anyone who is legitimately Jewish, aiding them through the process.  Rabbi Weissmann and the Beth Din are patient, methodical, thorough, and kind, and frankly one of the best assets the community has.  For anyone who's struggling with the Rabbanut, I have a simple message; if you want to have your problem taken care of in a straightforward and clear manner, by people who will treat you kindly and respectfully, call (212) 807-9042.

For many, the fact that the BDA does what it does is besides the point.  Local Rabbis should have the autonomy to decide if their congregants are Jewish, without having to submit to the authority of national agencies, no matter how well run, the thinking goes.  It is most definitely true that the authority of local Rabbis is actively being eroded in favor of stricter and less flexible national standards.  This is certainly true of conversions, where the system used for generations has been overhauled in favor of a standardized and less flexible approach.  It is also true of the Kosher supervisory industry, where "national standards" have replaced local supervision.

This is a dangerous trend for Judaism, as local need, leniency, and the very humanity of the people we deal with are ignored in a brave new world of bureaucracy and artificial insecurity.  I think it's fair to suggest that Rabbi Weiss and others see the denial of his letter as just one more front in an ongoing war.

My thoughts are as follows:  Rabbis are right to feel threatened, and ought to be advocating for renewed autonomy in religious decision-making.  It's this diversity and humanity that contributes to the greatness of the Jewish tradition.  Centralization, however, isn't always a bad thing, and is sometimes necessary on a larger scale.  While the fight is being waged, the entire American Jewish community ought to be aware of the fine upstanding work being done by the folks at the Beth Din of America, and make use of their talents.  The system may not be ideal, and there are surely obvious reforms to be implemented, but it can function much better if we're aware of the resources we have.  We hear way too many of these tragic stories, none of which have to happen, even under the current system.        

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Shana Tova!

My high holiday's message from this year's bulletin.  Best wishes for a happy and healthy 5774 to all of my friends and readers!
“Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur?”  This question, asked by sages and scholars throughout the centuries, has profound implications for our experience during this holiday season.  The logic of the question is as follows:  Rosh Hashanah is largely a celebratory sort of occasion, even with the solemnity of the day; unlike Yom Kippur, there are large family meals, sweet foods, friendly greetings, and an overall festive atmosphere.  Perhaps, it would make more sense to repent first, confess our sins, redirect our lives, and then celebrate.  Is not a celebration before the difficult work of repentance and the achievement of atonement inappropriately premature?
I believe that the answer to this question teaches a fundamental truth about the nature and structure of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays.  The Torah teaches that the holiday we fondly refer to as Rosh Hashanah is celebrated primarily through the blasts of the ram’s horn as a memorial (“zichron teruah”).  As for the significance of this particular observance or the nature of the holiday itself, the Torah is vague and obscure.  Strikingly, there is no mention of a new year, a day of judgment, or any of the overarching themes we’ve become so accustomed to.
Left with a void, the Rabbis understood the blasts of the shofar as a coronation ceremony, designed to remember/anoint the King of Kings and recall the creation of the universe.  The concept of God as King dominates the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, yet it’s a difficult concept to grasp.  For one, we’re not used to the notion of an all-powerful monarch in the modern era.  Also, the terminology used (melech – king) may actually distract from the meaning of the term itself.  The notion of God’s kingship is meant to evoke a consciousness of the fact that, while life can seem disparate, divergent, and devoid of order, there is always a living, loving God not only guiding existence but encompassing and causing it in the first instance.  The Master of the Universe is exactly that, and experiencing that reality is the central theme of Rosh Hashanah.
Framed in this context, it becomes clear why Rosh Hashanah appears first on the calendar; before we are moved to introspect, recall, review, and repent on Yom Kippur, we need a framework in which to do it.  Without an experiential and deep awareness of God’s loving sustenance and the responsibility that such a situation requires, repentance seems unnecessary or even misguided.  To state it more simply, before we can evaluate our past actions and correct our ways, we need a compelling reason to do so, and a roadmap of where we ought to be headed.             

My blessing to all of us is that we will be able to appreciate the holidays as a connected unit, truly experiencing God’s kindness and the most basic fact of our own existence, and that we will be inspired to become truer to our best selves, better able to emulate the divine kindness, love, and support we inherently receive and experience as we interact with others.  Best wishes for a happy, healthy, sweet, thoughtful, and successful year to all.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Call of the Rooster

"Can you send up an order to the clouds for an abundance of water to cover you?  Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer you, 'I am ready'?  Who put wisdom in the hidden parts?  Who gave understanding to the rooster?  Who is wise enough to give an account of the heavens?  Who can tilt the bottles of the sky, whereupon the earth melts into a mass, and its clods stick together?" - Job 38: 34-38  

In the previous post, I described the the unexpected blessings that have accompanied my now lengthened Shabbat walk to shul.  I'd like to continue the theme and share some of my recent Shabbat morning experience.

First, though, its worthwhile to add a few words about topic choice.  There are many "sexy" issues that ignite impassioned discussion and draw heightened readership and blog views (if Google Blogger's stats are even remotely accurate).  The reason I'm focusing on other issues now isn't out of any sense that such issues aren't important, or out of a fear to be honest on controversial issues (I've done that before, and will continue to do so).  Rather, my professional duties as a congregational Rabbi have led me to the conclusion that, since certain issues excite us so, and since there's rarely a dry news day, we spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the latest headlines and neglect or ignore altogether important issues of religious practice.  Discussing them more often and being more mindful of the practices we actually do is vital to the survival and growth of a meaningful Judaism with a relevant mesorah (tradition).  Personally, the issue which consumes most of my attention currently is intention and meaning before, during, and after the recitation of brachot, blessings.

Normally, there's not a whole lot of time to contemplate the various blessings that form the very beginning of the daily morning service.  By contrast, the long walk on Saturday mornings has provided me with an opportunity to recite the birkot hashachar (preliminary morning blessings) during my walk, spending my time inhabiting the worlds created by the words.

The Talmud (Berachot 60b) states that we should recite a blessing each morning upon waking up and hearing the rooster crow:  "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who gave understanding to the rooster to distinguish between day and night."  In modern times, since many of us wake up to the alarm clock rather than the rooster, the practice has evolved so that the blessing is recited in Synagogue just before the morning prayers.

Now,  it's a fact that roosters are rather awkward looking creatures, and don't immediately evoke associations with wisdom.  As I recite this blessing on my walk to shul, my mind turns from the rooster and moves naturally to the broader theme:

God's response to Job (from which the words of the blessing are derived) is a description of the awesomeness and unfathomable vastness of God's own creation and the relatively and inherently limited perspective of man to appreciate such.  Still, with the progression of time, humanity has collectively built up an incredible understanding of the natural universe and our place in it.  We are privileged, more than Job and the sages of his generation, to appreciate God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  From the smallest particles to the outer reaches of the universe and beyond (the multiverse?), from the nature of time (spacetime actually) to the biological workings of that funny looking rooster, the blessing encourages us to loose ourselves in a sense of awe and appreciation for all that is.  The more our minds drift and imagine what is, the more we understand, the greater our praise and appreciation.

Of course, we shouldn't forget the rooster's role as ancient alarm clock.  The blessing isn't merely a call to contemplate the wonders of creation, but man's relation to it.  Despite the vastness of the universe, the blessing is also a praise of God for our important role as intelligent beings (too) created in the image of God.  Our response to the clarion call of the rooster is to wake up; our response to the vastness and wonder of God's creation is to fill the void and embody the elegance.

Next week, Naomi and I will be spending an unusual Shabbat on an alpaca farm in Connecticut.  Personally, I'm eagerly looking forward to the experience.  One of the most exciting parts . . . getting woken at dawn the old fashioned way!                




Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Living on the edge . . .

(Humpty Dumpty, on the Edge)

Last month, Naomi and I moved to a wonderful home about one and a half miles away from shul.  Reactions have been mainly positive, if only for the reason it signified we were not likely to move in the immediate future. Rabbinic searches are stressful, and the community isn't particularly in the mood to hire a new Rabbi (at least I certainly hope not!).

Still, it's fairly obvious that some are a bit mystified by the seemingly infinite distance between our home and the shul.  It's not uncommon to be asked questions like, "[d]oes the eruv really extend all the way up here?" (yes, and even a little bit further!) and to here murmurs of "[m]aybe they just wanted some space."  First, despite popular notions to the contrary, Einstein's theory of relativity was discovered generally in Rhode Island long before he was born.  You see, since our state is so surprisingly small, the relativity of space and time takes on a special meaning here.  On a good day, it takes only 45 minutes to enter Rhode Island at the southern border and leave Rhode Island for the Commonwealth to our north; this small size frequently causes foreigners to forget our status as a state altogether, or to confuse Greater R.I. with Long Island, a small exotic location off the southern coast of Connecticut.  Locally, commuting more than ten or fifteen minutes is considered "long", and I've even caught myself saying things like "I'm going all the way to Warwick (15 minutes away) today."  All this to say that one mile in Rhode Island is actually longer (in relative terms, but that's all we ever have, anyway) than in many other locales.  Admittedly, it's also a bit of a walk.         

Now, to dispense with the uncertainty and spill the proverbial beans (what does that even mean anyway?), the main reasons we purchased the home are because we like it (an open layout mid-century modern ranch in a New England city filled with colonials) and because it was in great condition.  Also, it happens to be over the city line in Pawtucket, which means that taxes are demonstrably lower and that you can get far more for your money (assuming you're willing to give up a posh East Side address).  So far, we love it, and guests have been gracious in taking the hike with us for Shabbat meals.  

The point?  When I first started attending Shabbat services regularly as a young teenager, the walk was also long (actually longer) and less scenic to boot.  On Friday nights, the long walk home served as an extended time to bask in the beauty of twilight while being accompanied by the majestic malachei hashareit (ministering angels) that traditionally accompany Jews home from the Synagogue and into their homes on Friday night.  Practically, it was a way to internalize the tranquility of Shabbat and served as a serious break between the hustle and bustle of the work week.  On Shabbat morning, the peacefulness of the walk served as the perfect introduction to prayer.  With time to think and the solitude of being alone, my thoughts would inevitably turn to the upcoming prayers and to the presence of the Sabbath in my life.  By the time I would arrive, I had unintentionally prepared myself in a way that calmed and sensitized my soul.  I was in the mood, even anxious, to pray and express through the words of the Siddur and the thoughts of my mind the stirring I often felt on my Shabbat morning walk.

Enter college, and Hillel was a stone's throw away from my dorm room.  This pattern followed me for the rest of my life, and I continued to choose, actively and intentionally, to live in close proximity to a Synagogue.  Always, it was more convenient, closer to the heart of the community, and seemed like the wise decision, religiously and socially.

Fast forward a decade, and the economy has taught me a valuable (if accidental) lesson.  It didn't take more than the first Sabbath in our new home until I felt Shabbos in a way I haven't in more than a decade.  Once again, Friday nights are more spiritual and peaceful; morning prayers feel soulful and buzzing with life.  The extra love I felt for Shabbat in my youth has returned, and the funny thing is that I didn't even know it had ever gone.

I share my personal experience in the hope that it will spur thoughts and discussion about how to create meaningful ruach (spirit) and a spiritually complete Sabbath.  I've devoted much energy to this personally, yet ultimately a short walk did more for me than anything else.             

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Two-Way Street

Lately, it seems that the observant community has a penchant for dealing with big-picture political types of issues without taking a needed vacation. We've engaged in collective conversations (sometimes not quite conversations) on Israeli politics, the chief rabbinate, the modern kollel system financially and religiously, mandatory army service for all, feminism, women clergy, mesirah, child-abuse, racism in Jewish culture, civil and religious same-sex marriage, and now biblical criticism.  No doubt, all of these issues are important, some of them extremely so, as Orthodox Judaism confronts modernity head on.  Still, most of these issues concern themselves with the structure of Judaism or the hierarchy of organized Jewish life; for a while, I'd like to return to basic substantive Jewish issues.

Likely, blessings are the most common and frequent expression of Jewish religion at the current time. Regardless of theological philosophy, denomination, political preference, blessings as a means of expression are nearly universally accepted and practiced.  We make blessings over objects and actions ranging from the mundane to the holy.  There are blessings before and after consumption of food, after using the bathroom, upon arising, upon going to bed, upon hearing bad news or being informed of a death, upon birth and joyous occasions, on weddings, britot, holidays, candles, wine, lightning, thunder, fragrances . . . . (this could go on for a long time).  Blessings are important component of Judaism, whether or not one believes them to be legally required or merely spiritually efficacious.  It was just this sort of near-universal embrace that recently caused Rabbi Avi Shafran to publish an essay on the Cross Currents suggesting an all-out embrace of brachot as a response to elevate levels of discord.

Ever since I was first introduced to the Talmud, I've taken an extra interest in the tractate on blessings.  I'm not sure what it is, but I find the subject compelling.  Perhaps it's the fact that it's the first masechet that I learned, or simply the relevance of its subject matter to everyday life.  Either way, I'd like to share some personal reflections and thoughts about the way we bless.

In large part, our blessings are substantially a way to transcend the physical and focus on God, the ultimate spiritual ontology.  Who gives us our food?  Who put us here in the first place, that we should be able to partake of food?  We've survived till this exciting season, but Who has sustained us, and for what purpose?  We open by declaring "Baruch Atah Hashem . . . ."  We open by declaring that God is blessed, and by speaking directly to God, as if to ascend the heavens and approach Him directly.  Both the diction and the grammar cause us to focus on God directly.  Nevermind for the moment the various opinions and disputes about what it means for God to be blessed.  Ultimately, the opening of the beracha brings us to focus on God as a way to appreciate what we have and place it in perspective.

There is, however, another part to each and every blessing, the second part.  During this part, we focus not on God or some theosophical notion of who or what God is, but rather on what it is God does in our world.  From our ascent to the height of the heavens, we descend rapidly and completely to the physical realities of earthly existence, and contemplate them well.  We focus on the commandments (usually actions) that God has commanded us to do, the lightning he has created, the wine we have fermented, and so on.  Ultimately, the conclusion of the beracha is designed to cause an almost meditative mindfulness and awareness of physical phenomena as a way to more deeply and substantively appreciate God's input.

Sometimes, it feels like we focus almost exclusively on the first part of the equation, as if we could just approach a conception of God without assistance.  For these past few weeks, I've started to try and give equal weight to the end of the beracha, in an effort to appreciate the handiwork, the substance of our lives, and therein the Creator who made them. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Response to the "Matzav"

Today, I was attacked in an ad-hominem way on the popular "Charedi" news website  You can read the article here.  I have submitted the following letter in response to the editor, and assume they will publish it.  After all, it's a general rule in journalism that one who is attacked is given a right of response.  I publish my letter publicly because I was attacked in a public forum.

Dear Concerned Yid,

A few points in response to your letter published today on

1)  First, I'd like to address the substance of your claims.  Throughout your article, you made many false assumptions.  If you're truly as concerned as you claim to be (I have no way of knowing, but you do), you might take the time to verify assumptions before publishing them on the internet.  You could have contacted me, if you're truly concerned, and seen whether your assumptions were correct.  After all, the seal of Hashem is emes, and Jews should strive to be honest and accurate in what they say.  This is prudent and religious all in one.

You posit that my support for civil same-sex marriage is a remnant of my "liberal beliefs" and "background" left over from the days before I was observant.

Truth is, while I used to be far more liberal politically than I am today, I've opposed same-sex marriage publicly and privately for as long as I've been old enough to have an opinion on the subject.  In recent months, however, I've changed my mind, specifically because of my religious observance and affiliation.  As an observant Jew, I appreciate more than ever the protections of the First Amendment.  In the United States, our small minority religion is afforded tremendous protection.  Thousands of our Jewish brothers now refuse to work on Shabbat and holidays, knowing full well that their government will support their religious convictions and penalize anyone who tries to discriminate against them by firing them or refusing to hire them.    Our rituals (brit milah, kosher slaughter, etc.) are protected by the government, and our institutions receive support, honor, recognition, and even funds from states and the federal government.  Jews in public schools are no longer coerced into Christian prayer, and a general spirit of tolerance and understanding has allowed our people a golden age like none other in the diaspora.  This is true on both a governmental and social level, and has become an important part of the fabric of our country.

Therefore, it is our obligation to argue for the protection of minorities, be they religious, ideological, etc., and to advocate to prevent the use of religious doctrine in legislation at all levels.  If the state has the power to legislate marriage based on Judeo-Christian religious principles, then there's nothing to stop the state from regulating other areas of life based on religious principles, Judeo-Christian, Christian, or otherwise.  That's only a stone's throw away from the days of "the lord's prayer" and all the rest.  It's bad jurisprudence, bad for the Jews, and coerces people against their will, which is not helpful religiously either.

One more thing.  From a purely political perspective, it's not necessarily a "liberal" argument to argue for same-sex marriage.  I'll note that there was unanimous support for same-sex marriage among conservative republicans in RI's State Senate, based on a mixture of conservative and libertarian principles.  Conservative - If gay men and women are involved in relationships (which is a given), isn't it better for them to form committed monogamous relationships with stable family structures?  Libertarian - the state ought to stay out of defining, encouraging, or manipulating people's sexual or social preferences, especially if they're doing so based on religious convictions in possible violation of the First Amendment (the Court will tell us about that shortly).  I argued as I did largely because of my libertarian political leanings, not that it should matter, not liberal ones.          

2)  A few pieces of advice.  If you want to engage in an ad-hominem attack against someone, sign your name to it and face the consequences, positive and negative.  Doing so anonymously is cowardly and characteristic of the culture of fear that pervades our community lately.  Let's be mature enough to have important conversations with each other using our real names please.  This is true both locally in the current argument and generally in broader Jewish scene.

Also, if you want to critique and argument or position, fine.  In that case, you should state what you think I advocated, explain why you think it's wrong, and support your position with reasons and sources.  For a more complete argument, you might even offer self-critique, explaining the weaknesses of your own position.  All of the personal attacks, prejudicial comments, guilt-by-association character assasination mumbo jumbo (IRF Liberal Left Wing Loving Call His Rabbis Revoke His Degree Public Consequences Chillul Hashem etc.) distract from the content of the actual debate, and are not befitting of reasoned and enlightened discussion.  Orthodox Jews should be interested in serious discussion on the merits of the issues rather than vague and uninformed generalizations.  Erev Shabbat Shalom.


Barry Dolinger, another concerned Jew  

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Has God Moved?


In the article linked above, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo poetically shares his conclusion that God has "hired movers" and left the Synagogue and other places of established religion.  His points are basically threefold: 1)  God desires true seekers, and they are now largely found elsewhere, be it cafes, non-traditional minyanim (prayer quoroms) and batei midrash (study halls), and elsewhere.  2)  Traditional Jews continue to flock to God's old address, so to speak, but our prayer and service of God is (on the whole) absolutely and totally devoid of anything meaningful or experiential. 3)  Observant Jews are basically in a state of denial, focusing far too much energy on contrived questions and legal quandaries while willfully ignoring big-picture items that ought to form the loci of our observance.

As a Synagogue Rabbi, I've written about  many of these themes in the past, and think that this article is a must-read for all people of faith.  Practically every sermon I give includes a different impassioned plea for meaningful prayer and substantive religious encounter with the trans-formative awe of the divine; our observance is meant to serve that encounter, the encounter in return designed to radically alter our actions in this world for the good.  Whether it's had any affect good bad or otherwise I cannot say, though I know it has had an impact on my life in profound ways.  Personally, creating a meaningful observance and prayer space has been the primary function of my rabbinate and even this blog; it also happens to be one of the central points of our mesorah (tradition).

The next several blog posts will dwell on different aspects of this theme, but there's one I'd like to share today. It is widely known that Lag Baomer (the 33rd day of the omer count) is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic and possible author of the Zohar.  Often ignored is that it's also the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known affectionately as the Rema, the great mystic (yes, he also spent most of his time delving into kaballah) and authority of Ashkenazic Jewish law and custom.  In light of this article, I thought that the beginning of the legal code he authored are instructive.  We'll comment how he chose to open his great legal encyclopedia.

"שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד - I am ever mindful of the Lord's Presence" (Psalms 16:8).  He goes on to write that this is the most important rule of the Torah, because a person who lives with God-consciousness does not act the same way as one who lives without such consciousness.  Such a person will be humble, kind, and eager to serve God.

Why did the Rema begin a legal work with ostensibly non legal advice?  The answer is obvious.  Judaism and Jewish law represent a religious legal system, and the aim of that system is to foster a constant awareness of God and the resulting behavioral affects.  It's an easy question whether we're doing any of these well - we're not.  We certainly fixate on the law, even obsess, and in the modern day, seek new strictures and creative legal arguments all in a well-meaning effort to safeguard God's commands.  In all of this, the point is missed, masses leave or are uninspired, and the religious experience becomes dry and loses its efficacy.

It's easy to say "woah unto us."  The harder question, though, is what bold solutions and adjustments are needed to preserve and advance our tradition, one that teaches that the center of it all is an awareness of God's presence in our lives so deep that it affects all of our interactions profoundly.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mitnadvei Chutz La'aretz - The Power of the Individual

As it is Yom Hazikaron, the day when we remember those who have defended Israel, it's important for all of us to take some time out of the day to remember and learn about those who defended and continue to defend our people.  I was moved by the above video about MaCHaL, a group of about 4,000 volunteers who went to Israel to fight during the War of Independence in 1948.  So important was MaCHaL to the founding of the air force, in particular, that English and not Hebrew was actually the language of operation for the then-nascent Israeli airforce.  

Watching the video, I was struck by two things in particular.  Most heavily, I was first struck by the  the power of just a few individuals.  How just a handful of individuals, foreign volunteers no less, were able to to use leftover German plane parts, engage in risky combat tactics, and successfully hold off an Egyptian army of 10,000 is a testament to the Jewish spirit and the importance of what these men did.  In a world where individuals are increasingly invisible and human contribution seems less and less valuable, this was a powerful and emotional reminder that the actions of each of us really do count; sometimes, small acts of heroism that go barely noticed in the fog of war change history dramatically for millions of people.  Would we even have a state without the heroic actions of the pilots in the video?  What if they hadn't gone to fight?

Second, there actions serve not only as a source of pride, but as a clarion call to each of us.  What are we doing, what are we sacrificing to aide the survival and growth of our people?  Though it's primarily a day to remember the sacrifices of others, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives, it's also a day to consider our own contributions and how we carry on the legacy we've inherited.  Even if we're not fighting in the army, there are important things we can and should be doing for the Jewish people.  As someone who does not live in Israel, it's all too easy for the national and familial bonds that holds us together to remain unrealized beneath the surface.  These foreigners felt a sense of obligation to the Jewish people even from afar and acted on it.  Query: What actions can we take, locally or nationally, for the benefit of the Jewish people?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Go Down Moses . . .

This article I authored was published in the Jewish Voice and Herald on Friday, March 15, 2013.  I thought it worth reproducing here. 
Last year, President Barack Obama concluded his Passover Seder with an interesting addition.  After the singing of Had Gadya (traditionally the final song in the Seder service),  participants in the White House Seder took turns reciting sections of the Emancipation Proclamation, thus creating a bridge between the core message of Passover, a distant and remote cultic festival of an ancient people, the Israelites, and the powerful modern outgrowth of the same concept of racial equality. President Obama’s serving as the Seder leader further reinforced this message.
While many staffers joked that gefilte fish wasn’t usually on many White House menus, the conclusion of the White House Seder affords us the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of Passover.
As United States citizens, western Jews tend to speak of Passover in western terms.  Clearly, the holiday is about the benefits of freedom and the evils of slavery.  It also celebrates the triumph of the oppressed, and refutes the notion that “might makes right.” Egypt was the most powerful nation in the ancient world, while the Israelites were just a petty tribal family, oppressed and enslaved because of their minority status, unique identity and strange customs.
All of these notions speak to the heart of core liberal democratic values, so it is easy to simply assume that this is what Passover is about. However, that offers only a partial – and misleading – picture of the meaning of the holiday, and it behooves us to consider the holiday’s full meaning and its implications for our lives.
God’s language when he first commands Moses is instructive:
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my first born-son.’  I have said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go.  Now I will slay your first-born son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23)

In this statement, all of the emphasis is, surprisingly, on worshipping God, with no reference to the immorality of forced physical labor or the unconscionable notion that humans can own other humans as physical property.
Further, throughout the story, as the Egyptians are being afflicted with plagues, Moses’ request to Pharaoh is simply to allow the Israelites a holiday to worship their God: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me.’’” (Exodus 9:1)
In the well-known Civil War-era slave spiritual, though, Moses is alleged to have said merely, “Let my people go”; the song omits the conclusion of his request: “to worship [God].”
According to the biblical text, Moses’ complaints are not centered on the immorality of slavery but rather on the affirmative notion that God must be worshipped; slavery merely obstructs the path.
Generally speaking, the civic culture of the United States is one of personal autonomy rather than responsibility to others.  The U.S. Constitution carefully and deliberately grants each of us specific rights to which we are entitled.  It does not demand that we vote, serve in the military or do much service to our fellow citizens, other than leaving them alone.
The Passover story compels us to build on our beloved freedoms by asking ourselves the simple question, “to what end?”
Freedom from the constraints of physical and emotional oppression is a necessary first step; this point is easy to emphasize and relate to, especially in our society.  That freedom fundamentally requires us to worship God through the pursuit of a moral and ethical life is too often overlooked and too easy to forget in our society.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 29:20)
The goal of freedom is the exercise of responsibility.
Time, which has a way of turning things on their heads, allows for the creation of circumstances previously unimaginable.  During the Seder, symbols such as the maror (bitter herbs), haroset and the broken middle matzah compel us to imagine the life of a slave devoid of hope, and require us to confront those elements in our lives to which we are still enslaved.
At the same time, the four cups of wine, festive meal, presence of family and friends and yes, the matzah again, confirm our current freedoms and markedly changed circumstances.  In ancient times we were at the bottom, but today we are on top.
Perhaps the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Passover Seder represents more than a superficial connection to modern notions of freedom.  Once, we were slaves, freed by the proclamation of God through his prophet Moses.  Today, we are empowered, free to liberate others and issue proclamations of our own.