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?