Sunday, November 16, 2014

Healthier Relationships - Biblical Models

This is based on a sermon I gave this past Shabbat, Chayei Sarah.

(Isaac meeting Rebekah)

 “Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say ‘I do,’ committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.

Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages . . . .”

So begins “Masters of Love,” an article published in the Atlantic this past June by Emily Esfahani Smith.  The truth is, one of the largest problems in our society is failed or strained relationships.  Many of us are struggling personally, and we all have close friends or relatives one step away in failed or unproductive relationships. While the sacred bond between husband and wife is perhaps the paradigmatic example, all of our relationships are suffering substantially.

No doubt, the causes are many, and an exhaustive exposition is both impossible and beyond the scope of this sermon.  The increased demands of modern life and normative two working parent families add serious strain on family life.  The perpetual scatter-brained attempt at juggling our latest technological attention grabbers render us into untrained circus performers . . . except the show never ends.  Bureaucratic ubiquity, that pervasive sense that no one cares about how we’re actually doing, and that we’re just numbers on a page or cogs in a machine certainly contributes; as a reaction to feeling small and insignificant, self-promotion, competition, bragging, rugged individualism, and extreme narcissistic behaviors are all commonplace.  These are some of the things that rise to the top of my mind, and I’m sure there are so many more. 

Given the centrality of strain in marriages, friendships, and interactions generally, what key advice can the Torah give to what many term the dor yatom, our orphaned generation?  We need turn no further than the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s trusted servant, in his search for Isaac’s wife.
More than a wife, it seems as though Eliezer is searching for kindness and generosity personified, Abraham’s noted traits, in the form of a woman.  And so he controversially requests a divine sign, that God’s act of chesed result in the discovery of its human image:

“And he said, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have decreed for your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.’”

Overtly, kindness and generosity are the prerequisites for selection as a matriarch in the house of Abraham.  There are also subtle details, though, which reinforce the motif. 
A close reading yields at least two discrepancies; one between Eliezer’s request to God and the way it actually went down, and a second between the way it actually went down and the description Eliezer proffers to Laban and company.

1) During Eliezer’s request, the sign is when the woman instantly offers both Eliezer and his camels water to drink.  However, Rebekah actually offers him water to drink, lets him drink, and only afterward offers to give water to the camels.

2) During the actual events, after the generous offer of water, Eliezer gifts jewelry as a sign of approval, and only then inquires as to her genealogy. “When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekels in weight.”  He’s beginning to trust, optimistically, that God is fulfilling the conditions and act with faith.  Still, to be sure, he then asks, “’[p]ray tell me,’ he said, ‘whose daughter are you? Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?’”
However, his recitation of the events to Laban and Bethuel reverses the order, genealogy before jewlery. “I inquired of her, ‘whose daughter are you?’ and she said, ‘the daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ And I put the ring on her nose and the bands on her arms.”

To answer the first question, I’d suggest that Rebekah had intended from the outset to offer water to the camels as well. However, she wanted Eliezer to drink as much as he wanted, especially after his long hot journey, and didn’t want him to feel as though he ought to conserve the water. That’s why she only offered the camels water after she saw that he was satisfied.

As for the second question, perhaps the order is reversed to give Laban and Bethuel the impression that it was her lineage (and their honor) that really sealed the deal. This was a white lie offered not only to make a more efficacious appeal but also to engender positive feelings among Laban and Bethuel. Eliezer, like his master, is looking for ways to act with generosity.

The Atlantic offers several key ingredients toward the maintenance of healthy relationships, and thankfully, they’re mainly things we can work on and improve, rather than being innate.  From the article:

Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed and breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a critical discovery in this study—one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

After six years, they examined the couples who had divorced, the couples who remained together, and heard reports on their levels of satisfaction and happiness.  The couples who were still together had responded to “bids” an average of 87% of the time, versus just 33% for couples who had divorced. 

I’d posit that this is something tangible that can help aide our marriages, friendships, and other relationships in significant ways.  When someone makes a “bid,” reaches out, how do we respond, or better yet, do we respond at all?  Are we consumed in ourselves, or will we reach beyond ourselves, and respond generously? This forces us to implement the values we’d want to claim as our own.  There’s a famous story about a child who claimed that he had antipathy to Judaism because his parents cared more about football than him.  When confronted, the parents respond to the child that this is preposterous, and they of course care more about him than football.  How come, then, the child asks, you always were too busy to study with me when I asked on Sundays, and I saw you watching the football game instead.  A repeated rejected bid.
“Shammai used to say: Make your Torah study a fixed habit. Say little and do much; and greet everyone cheerfully.”[1]  Shammai’s aphorism is about more than the underlying content he’s concerned with; he’s making a broader comment about productivity and efficiency.  The first part of the Mishna is concerned not just with Torah study but making it a habit.  We should do a lot and say a little, in other words, be productive!  And how can we increase our productivity?  Habit.  Make Torah study habitual, scheduled regularly, and placed on the calendar.  Same thing with the seifa, the end of the Mishna.  Shammai notes that we must greet every person with good cheer.  Why kol ha’adam, each and every person?  It’s not just a Kantian notion that each person is of immeasurable and infinite value, “beyond all price” in his words, though this notion certainly will find much agreement in classic Judaism.  It’s also and even primarily about who we choose to be as people, and Shammai is telling us to be people who make a habit of always being kind, generous, and cheerful.  This, the same Shammai known for his legal and halachic stricture, is the perfect sage to be able to obligate us in remembering to habitualize kindness.

Similarly, the Talmud in Berachot[2] notes that one who fails to return a greeting is a robber.  “If his friend greets him and he doesn’t return the greeting he is called a robber.”  The proof text is from Isiah.  “The Lord will bring this charge against the elders and officers of his people: ‘It is you who have ravaged the vineyard; that which was robbed from the poor is in your houses. How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor?’ – says my Lord God of Hosts.”[3]  What could one possibly steal from the poor?  After all, they don’t have desirable property.  A greeting, say the sages.  A simple hello, a positive countenance, a smile and acknowledgment of worth.

In our generation, there’s massive “poverty” in this regard.  Increased distractions render it harder to focus on the things that matter most.  We’re all malnourished and impoverished suffering from a lack of positive interactions.  Let us resolve to habitualize kindness, respond to bids, and improve our relationships by relating more often.   

[1] Pirkei Avot 1:15
[2] Talmud Bavli, Berachot, 6b
[3] Isiah 3:14

Monday, October 20, 2014

Radical Rabbinics Renewed: Flood Waters Rising

(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who tried to reconstitute a modern Sanhedrin)

In recent weeks, the rabbinate has again been sullied by the sordid actions of one of our rank. Properly, the RCA repudiated, revoked, and removed said offender, and began to put in place overdue but welcome measures to protect the status of converts, particularly women, placed in a vulnerable position. Sadly, the actions came too late, and it seems they could have done more earlier.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but we've also been down this road before.  Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the revered sage and Av Beit Din (Chief Justice) for the RCA's affiliated BDA issued an important ruling, kedarko hakodesh (as is his holy way) ruling that all of the converts are Jewish and need not worry about their status.  As a deservedly revered, humble, learned, and pious Rabbi (who started his illustrious career in Providence, RI and makes us all beam with pride), his ruling will likely be respected and accepted across many streams, and most importantly, by the Rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate.  Still and sadly, the rabbinate is reviewing the conversions, in a move that could cause terror amongst the already vulnerable population, and is almost certainly a collective violation of the biblical injunction of inui hager, oppressing the convert.  Note, I'm not assigning blame, but describing the situation that I'm hearing numbers of real converts describe, and that amounts to a major Jewish law problem that we as Rabbis should and must address.

In the past. the sages from the time of the great assembly to the sages of the mishnah to the medieval authority Rabbeinu Gershom issued legal decrees to protect the vulnerable, the classic origination of tikun haolam, the repair of the world.  These included the institution of the ketubah to protect married women in changed socioeconomic circumstances, the ban on polygamy, the pruzbul to protect the poor, and other bold and brave decrees.  Gittin, divorce documents are destroyed, and courts only keep certificates that a divorce was completed, specifically so that we won't revisit the documents to inquire as to their validity.

In that most traditional of spirits, an in line with Rabbi Schwartz's ruling and the RCA's statement, for the sake of righteous converts (gerei hatzedek) I humbly propose that the Orthodox Rabbinate sign on to a new decree, a bona fide gezeira (decree to protect Torah law) that states as follows:

    אנו החתומים גוזרים שאסור לבדוק אחרי מעשים הרעים לשעבר של דיינים לבתי  דין של גיור כדי לפסול גירות כי אין לדבר סוף ואי אפשר לגרים לחיות בפחד בלי מנוחת נפש.  עושים את הגזירה הזאת מפני תיקון העולם

We the undersigned decree that it is forbidden to inquire into the former immoral actions of conversion court judges in order to invalidate conversions, for there is no end to the matter and it is not proper for converts to live in constant fear with no peace of mind.  We are making this decree to facilitate the betterment of our world.

Several points:

1) Rabbinic Power Generally

Some will point out, rightly, that we have much to fear from unchecked rabbinic power, especially given the current state of affairs.  I don't disagree.  That being said, this is a religious problem, and the rabbis of former generations would have been creative, bold, and solved the problem in just this kind of way.  There are plenty of natural limits on rabbinic power.  For one, the community won't accept a universal decree easily if at all (most would think the idea impossible in the current climate). Secondly, the notion of getting prominent scholars and a wide breadth of Rabbis and legal decisors to agree to new legislation is nearly impossible to fathom in today's divided world.  That's why I'm imploring my rabbinic colleagues defy cynicism and do the impossible.

2)  Halachic Analysis

Rabbi Schwartz's ruling was a current Jewish law ruling.  I haven't heard his reasoning, but am sure he's judged and ruled correctly.  Many others will agree, but it's possible that some, especially in Israel, will not.  I'd like to explore and examine the legal aspects of retroactively invalidating conversions and the status of sinful judges (whose prior sins were exposed after the fact), but even engaging in this analysis is problematic for converts given the immense and dramatic practical implications of the law.  What I'm proposing is, in some sense, unrelated to that type of analysis.

3)  Restoring the glory of Torah

It's been a tough road for organized religion, or organized anything for that matter (see Congress of the United States).  Cynicism is high, popularity is absent, and there's a broad consensus that self-interest, partisan politics, money, and power prevent the right thing from happening always.  Friends, we can actually begin to change that action through bold moves consistent with our mesorah (tradition).  When I was studying in RIETS, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a venerated Rosh Yeshiva and one of the community's brilliant sages and Talmudic scholars would often repeat some version of the following thoughts:

Why is it that the chachamim are allowed to make new decrees?  After all, the Torah is perfect, meaning perfectly balanced between stringency and leniency, as expressed in the mitzvot that we shouldn't add or subtract, and in the Rambam's notion of shevil hazahav, the golden mean, etc.  The sages understood inherently that they were empowered to create fences or obligations to protect the observance of commandments and ideals, positive and negative, that were in the Torah.  They weren't making new rules, but insuring that the Torah was properly followed.

Well, it's the same situation for us today.  The Torah's command to "love the convert" and proscription, "don't oppress the convert," are concomitantly and systematically endangered.  This is precisely the unique kind of situation where Rabbis need to bond together to protect the righteous values and commands of our holy Torah.  A gezeirah is the perfect way to do it, and would help to mend wounds and restore faith in the Torah and religious leadership.  That's the real tikkun to this kind of thing, and I hope people will take my simple but bizarre suggestion seriously.  Frankly, it's the traditional rabbinic answer and long overdue.

I'm also going to ask for allies from across the Orthodox rabbinic spectrum to join together in this fight, and lobby for its acceptance.  It's our responsibility to solve the problem structurally and not rest.  As we said so many times on Sukkot, Please God, save us!  When I first became more observant, my grandfather z''l reminded me that God likes to help those who help themselves first. I'm going to do my best to follow his advice.      

P.S.  If you're willing to sign on, let me know!

Mikveh Madness II

I'd like to share some of the kernel ideas of a sermon I delivered to my Congregation this past Shabbat, Parshat Breishit, when we started the Torah anew and began with Creation:

Years ago, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z''l wrote a small booklet entitled Waters of Eden outlining the basic laws and some of his philosophical musings on the Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.  In that rich pamphlet, he noted some powerful and beautiful ideas about the concept of Mikveh.  

First, he focused on a common Chasidic conception of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, promulgated by the Baal Shem Tov and many others.  Originally (presumably in an ontological and not necessarily temporal sense), humans were purely good, with evil manifest externally.  Enter the slithering snake as sinister symbol.  After consumption of the fruit from the tree, however, good and evil were then (and now) bound together.  More than the metaphor of entangled cords, it seems more proper to analogize by assigning to evil the role of soluble dissolved in a solvent; think sugar in tea.  On Shabbat, to emphasize the point, I mentioned a profound interpretation of the Gaon Rabbi Elijah of Vilna.  A famous verse in Ecclesiastes states, "For there is not a righteous person on Earth who does good and sins not." (Ecclesiastes 7:20).  The common understanding is that no one is perfect; all people sin.  Taking a more literal interpretation, the Gaon explained instead that every good deed is inherently mixed with some element of sin, be it improper motivation, ego, gain, etc.  Anyone who performs a good action will also sin in some sense; it's simply the cost of doing business in our post-Edenic world. 

Central to Rabbi Kaplan's thesis (it made the title!), he focused on the verse, "[a] river went out of Eden to water the Gaden, and from there it separated and became four headwaters." (Genesis 2:10)  The Talmud in Berachot (55a) notes that all of the world's bodies of water are sourced in the original river leaving Eden. Immersion in the Mikveh, and purity in general, is an attempt to return to the well-intentioned world of Eden where human desires are pure and plain.  Halachah requires absolutely immersion in a natural body of water to achieve taharah, purity.  Personally, I understand this to mean a mode of operation where we strongly and innately desire to act righteously and put our best foot forward.  This is something we all feel on occasion, and try to make our common mode.

How sadly ironic that the mikveh itself has now become the model of the blurring between the pure and the profane, and that the natural source of our return to honesty, humility, and trust in humanity's best intentions has transformed into a vestige of that very real and perverse world in which we live.  Is it possible to find purity in our world?     

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mikveh Madness

In the Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik famously discerned two human archetypes in the varying accounts of Creation presented both in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 (read yesterday as the weekly Torah reading), and also evident from his personal observations and experiences of modernity. It's not my intention to discuss the Rav's compelling confession in full here, but I would like to make use of his thesis to describe some of the sadness I'm feeling today.

While describing what the Rav termed “Adam I”, he described a social creature whose innate humanity (and therefore reflection of being created in God's image) is manifest by the command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Man's mastery over science, nature, obsession with technological advance, and constant quest for dignity are to be understood as one of two major operating principles, and an important part of what it means to be a human. I'd like to cite part of the Rav's description of this personality:

     Dignity is a social and behavioral category, expressing not an intrinsic existential quality but a            technique of living, a way of impressing society, the knowhow of commanding respect and                  attention of the other fellow, a capacity to make one's presence felt. In Hebrew, the noun kavod,          dignity, and the noun koved, weight, gravitas, stem from the same root . . . Hence dignity is is              measured not by the inner worth of the in-depth personality, but by the accomplishments of the            surface personality. (Lonely Man of Faith, pg. 24).

I'm not a sociologist, nor am I a psychologist. It would seem to me, though, that, with frequent publicity, “spiritual leaders” repeatedly fail to respect the human dignity of others, and have manifest their personal perverted drives for power by using and and objectifying others. Sometimes, its a lack of respect for property or civil liberties; sometimes, its a lack of respect for honestly held feelings and experiences; often, its a lack of respect for sexual privacy and the infinite human value present in each soul. All of the time, it's the opposite of the values real spiritual leaders ought to be promoting as their raison d'etre. The problem is much more deeply rooted than the surface symptoms and manifestations we so often read about, and is inherent to the money, fame, and power so easily abused in organized religion. “Responsibility” is vital in the Rav's formulation of Adam I's healthy exercise of human power; it's totally absent far too often in today's rabbinate and in religious and other leadership structures generally. And then there's “Adam the Second,” an archetype even more sorely absent, and one that ought to be a balanced part of religious existence.

For “Adam the Second,” his human drive is manifest not in exercising (we hope responsibly) human domination and control, but rather in the experience of the divine inherent in being.

     However, while the cosmos provokes Adam the first to quest for power and control, thus making        him ask the functional “how” question, Adam the second responds to the call of the cosmos by            engaging in a different kind of cognitive gesture. He does not ask a single functional question.            Intead his inquiry is of a metaphysical nature and a threefold one. He wants to know: “Why is it?”      “What is it?” “Who is it?” (Lonely Man of Faith, pg. 20)

The mikveh is the ancient Jewish ritual bath. Composed of natural water, its use represents this important and oft-neglected aspect of existence. For many reasons, our modern society renders it increasingly difficult to face the mystery of our own existence, and existence as a whole, and to confront our human role and responsibility in light of the grandeur, loneliness, and awesome privilege of simply being. Undoubtedly, part of it is our obsession with mastery, technology, fame, and ourselves; in other words, the extreme and growing overemphasis of “Adam the First.” Water is a universal symbol of rebirth, and a Jewish symbol of purity, introspection, and the relationship between an individual and the Master of the Universe. Personally, my experience using the mikveh (aside from the one time I caught Conjunctivitis from a toxic body of water in Jerusalem's old city on the Eve of Yom Kippur) has been fragile and meaningful. Alone in the room with the water, I recall feeling God's presence and resolving more strongly to improve, to change, and to focus. Partly the ritual and partly the religious significances and deep connection so many generations of our ancestors, the mikveh is the ultimate in religious confrontations with God and with one's own self. The horrid abuse of this intimate sanctified space reminds me of the forgotten holiness in our world, and leaves me shaken.

It could just be me, but I often feel as though even our Jewish religious culture rejects the fundamental attitude of religious awe, focusing instead exclusively on scholarship, achievement, image, news, and a variety of other public and social things. I think it's time to shift the scales a bit, especially in this era of Facebook and Twitter, and time to focus more on private faith, quality of character, and authentic religious experience. I'm no prophet, but it seems to me the shechinah is shedding tears during this time of joy. If She isn't, I am, and I know I'm not alone.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Prepare to Pray

This is part of a series I prepared for the 401(j) blog!

A person should only pray in a serious state of mind. The chasidim harishonim (early saints) used to wait [in meditation] one hour and then pray in order to fully direct their thoughts to their Father in heaven . . .” – Talmud Bavli, Berachot, 30b, quoting the Mishna
One Sabbath, I was praying in a certain synagogue, and the Rabbi used the above quotation as the subject of his weekly sermon.  He spent approximately twenty minutes expounding the above cited quotation with flourish and oratorical artistry.  Pondering publicly what these righteous Rabbis could have been doing for a full hour in advance of prayer, the Rabbi beautifully described the importance of preparation and contemplation as a transformative tool for a person’s prayer.  I was sold.  However, what I took away from that day wasn’t primarily or even mainly the sermon but the congregation’s reaction and lack of reaction to it.  Though many in the congregation were whispering (it was still the middle of the prayer services, after all) about how they had thoroughly enjoyed the sermon, I fear the message was still lost.  The Rabbi’s sermon was followed immediately by Mussaf, an additional prayer said privately at first and only on the Sabbath and holidays.  Looking around, I noticed people taking the ritual three step jog, first backward, then forward, and immediately beginning their usual bow and shuckle routines.  Even the Rabbi was racing ahead and finished his prayer a mere minute and a half after it had begun.
As Jews, we love to learn and study about Jewish spiritual practice.  We write and read books, philosophize, study, and discuss spirituality on a regular basis; niggun (spiritual song), rikud (spiritual dance), and meditation (there are a variety of Hebrew words used with slightly different connotations) are incredibly well documented as central parts of both mystical and non-mystical Jewish religious practice.  When it comes to the praxis, I’d politely suggest that we’re not nearly as thorough as in our study.  The tension I experienced that Sabbath morning is not an unusual occurrence but the rule rather than the exception.
I don’t know why we seem to prefer a sermon about meditation to the actual practice.  Some would say it’s the time involved, but that can’t be right.  Synagogue services are frequently hours long and filled with divrei Torah (words of Torah study).  In fact, the Rabbi’s sermon is usually given before seminal parts of the service as a type of preparation.  On a weekly basis, it’s before Mussaf, one of the two central private and then publicly repeated prayers.  On Rosh Hashana, the Rabbi speaks before the Shofar is blown, and on Yom Kippur, the Rabbi usually speaks before Kol NidreYizkor, and Neilah, the most central parts of the holiday services.
More likely, the reason there’s a gap in our practice has to do with the combination of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and embarrassment.  For many, meditation has simply never been a part of the Jewish ritual experience, not formally and not informally.  We’re not sure what to do or how to do it, and it feels a little bit too new-age or Buddhist for traditionalist sensibilities.  We’re uncomfortable and wondering at the same time how we’ll be judged.
The truth, however, is that Judaism isn’t as Western a religion as we in the West seem to think it is, and meditative practices were central even to opposing mystical and rationalist streams of classical Judaism.
In our synagogue, before the final prayer, Neilah, on Yom Kippur, the Rabbi doesn’t speak.  Instead, the Chazan harmonizes our thoughts with contemplative humming as we contemplate and bask in the power of the moment.  It empowers individuals, transforms the service, and actively allows and invites the public to own their penitence.
Personally, I’ve taken to trying to wait five minutes before the Amidah, the central private prayer, whenever it occurs.  What do I do?  Precisely what I imagine the early sages to have done and what they advise (if not mandate) that we do!  I simply focus on my natural breathing by tracing my breath as it fills my lungs, pauses, and then changes course and leaves my body.  For me, this provides tremendous calm and brings on the onset of a contemplative mood that changes my prayer in a way that no study, speech, or sermon ever could.  Truthfully, the longer I wait, the more concentrated and sincere my prayer, and I wish that the realities of time and job (and I’m a Rabbi!) didn’t require my prayer to be so rushed.  Still, even a few minutes changes the world.  Since it’s worked so well for me, I want to encourage others to give it (or something similar tailored to personal preferences) a serious try in the hope that we can increase “metaphysical fitness” and transform our prayer and synagogue services into quality “gym” time.  If you’re concerned that it’s too “new-age,” try to think of it as “old-school” instead.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pillars of the World

"Shimon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly.  He used to say: On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness." - Pirkei Avot 1:2

This is perhaps one of the most famous mishanyot (oral law teachings) from Pirkei Avot, often translated as Ethics of the Fathers.  As an aside, I believe this translation is in error, and that a better translation exists for the title of the work; avot, or fathers, is a word that is usually reserved exclusively for the three forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but no one else.  In fact, this notion is codified as a talmudic ruling in Masechet Brachot.  Here, the word "avot" would be better translated as major principles, a meaning which it has in other sections of the Mishna (e.g. arba'ah avot nezikin, etc.).  In that case, the work would be titled "The Chapters of Funadmenatal Principles."  

Clasically, I always understood the three-fold approach in the Mishna as referring to study, prayer, and kindness as the three main substructual categories by which a person can serve the Creator.  Recently, when studying this teaching, it dawned on me that it's saying something similar but entirely different, and the meaning I've been assuming for years isn't nearly precise enough.  In my haste to read more, I had failed to think adequately about the intent and deeper meaning, and so repeated this teaching dozens of times without ever really appreciating its message.

First and foremost, it must be noted that these three things are literally pillars of the world.  What does that mean?  Images of Atlas physically supporting the planet immediately pop up in my mind.  Definitively not the intended meaning.  Rather, this is a statement of ontological reality, and these are the principles at the very heart of existence.  

I humbly submit that "Torah" here refers not to study per se, but to the notion of revelation as a relationship. The Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the universe) calls out to his creation with imperatives of ethical living.  We respond to a calling and hold ourself to a standard because God has left His silo, so to speak, and chose to assume names, qualities, and presence in our lives.  To phrase it another way, Torah here represents the most simple and basic notion that God chose to create; as the Midrash teaches, God looked into the Torah and created the world.  As Rav Kook notes in his commentary to the siddur, the notion of a Living Torah so popular in our faith means that the Torah is a uniter and actual source of life. This first act of literally indescribable love, benevolence, and kindness on the part of God and His reaching out to humans and all of His creation is the first foundational relationship.

"Avodah," divine worship, had always symbolized prayer to me.  However, from a perspective of relationship, it stands for man's great reach for the Divine.  If Torah describes the room God creates for man, then Avodah describes the ways we attempt to invite God into our lives.  Jewish prayer, requesting and noting the godliness of our salaries, health, desires, spiritual growth, national status, and all the rest of the classical prayer topics, represents a main way in which we reach up (or should I say in) to bring God into our lives, or alternatively, to become more godly ourselves.  Our quest to connect in response to Torah represents the second pillar of existence; as the prophet Jeremiah noted long ago, with the world was created for Brit, covenant.  That we should reach beyond our limited circumstances to connect to the greatness beyond is another of creations causes.

"Gemillut Chasadim," acts of loving-kindness, represent the third leg of the relationship.  Caring for others is not merely a third avenue of divinely endorsed comportment, it is a metaphysical fundamental. This represents our mutual reaching out to one another, as nivraim, creations, recognizing that we are all of us merely part of a much greater whole, charged with overcoming our individuality and learning to care without boundary for each other and all things.  This spirit manifests compassionate, responsible treatment of the animal and even plant kingdoms, and should cause us to act in harmony with our environment and planet.  It is related to an internalization of the other legs (true knowledge of God brings about an understanding of ultimate unity and a sense of communion with nature and all that is).  Physically and metaphysically, then, the world and society stand as a result of our concern with each other.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Metaphysical Fitness

(This is a piece written originally for the 401(j) blog)

As  I jog down beautiful Blackstone Boulevard, freely breathing the cleaner-than-usual air and taking simple pleasure in the shade of the strong sturdy trees, I can’t help but marvel at the many people (and dogs) also enjoying the East Side’s treasured oasis on an enlivened June day.  A tall father expertly and routinely jogs while pushing a jogging stroller, as if this novelty of convenience and health had always existed.  Two elderly visor donning women briskly alternate arms as they power walk in 90’s era walking suits – remember those?  A group of college students quicker and leaner than the rest pass us all, for the third time; I now suppose they must be members of an organized cross country team.  Bikers decked out in numbered uniforms and serious biking gear zoom by, while cars are eager to wait patiently for the myriad strollers, joggers, and walkers.  In short, “the Boulevard” as it’s affectionately called by locals serves as a symbol of the great commitment to physical and mental well-being that has so deeply pervaded our sense of lifestyle.  I often feel proud to live in a city and join as part of a local community with Blackstone Boulevard as a sort of crowned jewel.
Along with a cultural commitment to physical wellbeing, it seems that a new trend is arising, and it’s one I’d like to reflect on today.  I’m calling it “metaphysical fitness”, a name which came out of a group conversation at the International Rabbinic Fellowship’s recent conference; I did not invent the name and take no credit for it.  Moreover, it doesn’t much matter whether the type of fitness it intends to describe is in fact truly metaphysical (denoting something beyond the physical existence of this present universe) or really some deep physical manifestation within the brain.  Broadly speaking, it conjures up notions of spiritual well being, including the health of the soul and a connection with the unified Source of all life.  Our relationship to nature and the natural world become important from this perspective, as does the universal connection of all things to all other things, shedding away the masks of individuality and separateness that Jewish mystics have long called useful illusions. 

Now, the model of fitness serves as a useful paradigm from which to examine how to improve individually and collectively our metaphysical well-being.  Meditation, mindfulness, reflection, perspective, song, harmony, and prayer are the gym equipment of the metaphysical health center, and daily practice, tailored individually, is key in this arena as well.  As a Rabbi, many people often complain to me regarding the difficulties they face when coming to pray.  “Rabbi, it just doesn’t speak to me – I’m unfamiliar with the words and grow bored quickly.”  I’ve felt this way as well at times, and the High Holidays often foster this sentiment amongst multitudes of serious (and seriously frustrated) Jews. 

In 2010, I was in poor physical shape, and decided that I needed to incorporate regular cardio into my weekly routine.  I tentatively and self-consciously entered the Yeshiva University gym, and began to jog on the treadmill.  I could barely complete 1.5 miles on a non-inclined indoor treadmill, and was legitimately wondering if my heart and lungs could bear the exercise.  Looking back a mere four years later, even a semi-regular often interrupted routine of jogging and exercise makes those days seem laughable.  Gradual regular practice at any discipline is the time-honored surefire way to improve, and the spiritual realm is no different.  If you try out prayer, meditation, and the other gym equipment to promote healthy soulful living (and I’d encourage everyone to give it a serious try), don’t give up when it’s tough at the beginning.  Stick it out, find ways to improve your technique, whether from metaphysical trainers or literature, and you’ll certainly note a gradual but surprising increase in metaphysical well being.            

Friday, July 4, 2014

Shabbat - A Heavenly Testament to Earthly Holiness

Dear Friends, 

We express our grief, tears, pain, shock, and profound sadness upon learning of the vicious murder of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar earlier this week.  It is our hope and prayer that God grant their families, friends, and the whole nation a measure of comfort during this period of raw unimaginable pain.

We joined in the mourning by watching the painful funeral at the RCA conference this past week.  There, Prime Minister Netanyahu movingly stated that "[o]ur enemies sanctify death but we sanctify life . . . we prayed for a miracle but were answered only with tragedy."  He went on to add that "there is a huge ethical gap which separates our enemies from us." 

Truthfully, radical Islamic terrorism represents one of the great moral threats to the sanctity of life throughout the world.  Particularly, millions of women, children, Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in countries as diverse as Iraq, Israel, Syria, Nigeria, and Russia are persecuted daily by this terrible violent ideology.  As Jews, it is our moral obligation and imperative to join our brothers throughout the world in fighting to protect the religious value of life so fundamental to our faith.  

As we prepare to accept Shabbat, may we fulfill its spirit and law by recalling the creation of the world whereupon God, Who's very name denotes the holy source of all life, continually recreates us as working partners to foster a sense of unity, holiness, and harmony.  It is my prayer that our response to this frightful tragedy will be a redoubling of effort and renewed commitment to the values of human dignity, unity, and responsibility to each other that we hold so dear.  

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Dolinger 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Interest: Then & Now

Note: The following post was written for the 401J blog ( but I thought it would be worthwhile to post again here:  

“If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.  If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return int to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin.  In what else shall he sleep?  Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.”  (Exodus 22:24-6)

Interest rates affect all of us in some way or another.  Recently, historically low interest rates induced me and my wife to end the days of renting and bite the proverbial bullet by purchasing our first home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for example.  In our society, it’s basically a given that it’s got to cost something to borrow money now, and we’re more than happy to accept that.  We considered the interest rate we received on our mortgage a steal.

True, many interest rates are fairly low and quite reasonable.  Education and housing, for example, are two areas where interest rates remain fairly low for a variety of reasons.  In other areas though, rates are high bordering on predatory, and can often cause financial stress that turns into crisis as quickly and surprisingly as flames can spread.  Notoriously, credit card debt causes problems for many.  It’s easy to charge things, much harder to pay and keep track of what’s been spent. Then, rates well over twenty or even thirty percent kick in, greatly increasing the burden.

In particular, Payday loans have served as a predatory means for crippling those in need, particularly here in Rhode Island.  First, the basics.  A Payday loan is a small loan that is supposed to be paid off the next time a person receives their paycheck.  The intent is to help those who are having a tough time paying bills but should be able to do so as soon as their next paycheck comes.  This advances the money to a person’s bank account now, assuming they’ll pay off in a few weeks when the paycheck comes in.  The only requirement to qualify for the loan is usually evidence of regular employment and a paycheck on the way.

Now, the abusive part.  These seemingly helpful loans have enormous interest rates.  In Rhode Island, the cap is 260% annually, which is not uncommonly charged.  Further, most people who apply for Payday loans don’t have access to other lower interest loans because of poor credit or limited resources.  Default on these loans is not uncommon, and a small loan for $100 or less can turn into thousands of dollars or more in the blink of an eye.  Many states have legislation to limit these usurious interest rates, and advocates in RI are making a legislative push for a cap at 36%.

As quoted above, the Torah places a categorical prohibition on charging interest to fellow kinsmen in order to assist those in need without penalizing them.  I always assumed, though, that this idealistic law was first promulgated in a society where interest wasn’t common.  Therefore, it was essentially a nice law though better applied in a totally different economic climate.  Wrong.  I recently learned that interest rates were regularly between 20 (the Sumerian rate) and 50% in the ancient near east, and that high interest rates were ubiquitous.  Israel was the notable exception in a climate of predatory lending.  All the more, this serves as a stark reminder of the Torah’s radical message of assistance those in need for their sake rather with a meaningful prohibition on profiting from that assistance.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Reading vs. Praying


We've all been there.  You're reading a book, initially interested, eagerly turning the pages, absorbing, thinking, conversing with yourself and the author's constructed voice.  Time passes, and suddenly, you realize that for the last however many pages, you haven't been engaged.  Sure, you've read and even comprehended the words, but you've taken away nothing and have stopped engaging with the text.  What started out as an active, engaged reading has become a passive exercise with little attention, input, or interest.

Either version of reading is inherently passive to some extent.  An author has already done the heavy lifting, organizing original thoughts and presenting ideas.  Moreover, if there is a dialogue to be had when reading, it's a dialogue with ourselves, in our own heads.

Contrast this with what prayer could be. Though the central prayer of Judaism, the amidah (literally standing prayer), is frequently mistranslated as the "silent devotion", halakhah (Jewish law) requires that it be vocalized and said out loud (but not so loud as to disrupt others!).  Prayer is fundamentally an act of communion and communication with Another.  Yes, in many theories of it, it may indeed be primarily effective due to the reflexive effects on one's self (and not God).  Still, it is universally understood to be a conversation with Got outside that is the method to achieve this effect.  This is so because prayer is meant for us to leave the boundaries of self (as we do each and every time we act towards or communicate with someone or something else or other) and engage in act of sharing with and receiving from God.  This reaching out allows us to broaden our perspective and vet our wishes and desires against our (admittedly limited) understanding of what God wants for his creation.

For example, when praying and asking God for improved health, one ought to prompted to to take things a step further.  "Why should God want to give me better health?  If I had it, would it advance God's stated purposes?"  These refinements and clarifications, a natural part of healthy dialogue with any other, give prayer a large part of its force.  Suddenly, improved healthy is a means toward partnering with God on the other end of the request in helping to form a more perfect world.

These days, we pray from a book.  Often, it's too quick and familiar to be even an active reading, itself far short of the prayer ideal.  More often, it's an exercise in repetition, more closely resembling the passive reading mentioned above.  We're all familiar with prayer leaders quickly mumbling and plowing through in order to finish on time.  Punctuation is often absent, as is inflection.   Just as we sometimes drive to work without paying attention to where we're going and wind up in the right place out of habit, prayer can turn into a exercise in habit-formation.

Instead, to make prayer effective, we need to work aggressively to transform prayer into a true dialogue.  In the United States, our synagogues often feature a collective gathering of well-intentioned reading.  As a result, attendance at daily prayer in waning, and weekly services feature a host of other attractions to bring people through the door.  Let's work to change the status quo and reclaim the beauty and power of the transformational conversation that is prayer.