Thursday, April 26, 2012

When I'm 64...

I've been away from the blog for a while, and I do intend to get back to it (I'm finding it's difficult without the steady themes given by the #BlogExodus project)...

Today is the 64th birthday of the State of Israel, which has invited many comments/ jokes on the internet linked to Paul McCartney's song "When I'm 64."  Here's my effort at a couple of verses...enjoy, and good luck getting the melody out of your head!

Now that she's older, been 'round the block, many years gone by
Let us sing for Yisrael a valentine
List the reasons why she's so fine
This land is my land, eretz shell, tamid l'dor vador.
Let's make it clear now, let's give a cheer now: Israel's 64!

From Mount Hermon down to the Red Sea, there's so much to love.
See the Kotel and leave God a note,
At the Dead Sea, lean back and float
In Herziliya, in Tel Aviv, by Kinneret's shore,
Let's make it clear now, let's give a cheer now: Israel's 64!

Translation: My land, always, from generation to generation

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Future of Judaism

In the spring of 1998, when I interviewed for admission to the rabbinical program of the Hebrew Union College, one of the questions that the panel asked me had to do with what would be the greatest threat to Jewish continuity and the Jewish future.

Fourteen years later, I think my answer would be the same: the divisiveness of different Jewish movements threatens to destroy us from within.

At the time of my interview, I was not entirely sure where on the spectrum of Judaism my personal beliefs and practices fell.  Though I had been raised in a Reform household, I had exposed myself to the practices of different denominations of Judaism.  I wasn't sure that some of the innovations of Reform Judaism weren't being made merely for the sake of innovation.  This, I feared, would only grow the chasm between the various movements.

Nowadays, I would point my finger elsewhere as well: Orthodox Jews who conflate minhag (custom) with halachah (law) to assert that certain actions are forbidden, or that certain individuals will never be fully accepted into our community.  Jews who feel that the only way to show compassion for Palestinians is to excoriate and denigrate Israel.  Jews who find that the services and activities of their synagogue don't appeal to or inspire them, and rather than working within to foment change, simply stop attending or affiliating.  I could keep on going...

But while I have my trepidation about the future of Judaism, I also have great hope.  We are seeing wonderful innovative approaches to worship and programming, both within the mainstream movements, and from so-called "post-denominational" corners.  We are seeing the hegemony of Orthodoxy in Israel, which formerly came at the expense of more liberal forms of expression, beginning to erode.  We are seeing more avenues for inclusion of women, gays and lesbians, and non-traditional families.

At our sedarim, we will invite Elijah into our midst, in the hopes that he will herald a messianic age.  But we need not wait for his arrival.  We have the power to transform the world now, to begin building a more promising future.


Note: This is the conclusion of the #BlogExodus project.  I do plan to continue my blogging, but I'll be taking a brief hiatus for Passover.  I wish everyone a "Zissen Pesach," a Happy Passover.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is This Night Different From All Others?

The Passover seder is a time for questions.  Beyond the traditional four of the Mah Nishtanah, we encourage participants to be inquisitive about the circumstances surrounding this holiday.  Four times in the Torah, the text tells us that children for generations to come will ask about the meaning of this day (giving rise to the legend of the four children), so ask we must!

This year, I find myself asking a different sort of question, inspired by--yet transcending--the traditional Passover texts.  I am wondering what it will take, how many commemorations of our Festival of Freedom we will need to observe, before all individuals on this planet will enjoy the same freedoms, the same opportunities, the same hope and optimism for the future.

Yesterday was the yahrtzeit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are a student of history, you may recall that Dr. King happened to be in Memphis, where his life tragically ended, in support of African-American sanitation workers who were on strike for better working conditions.  Presciently, Dr. King delivered what has come to be known as his "Mountaintop Speech," highlighting the achievements that had already been won, while also looking forward to the future that he recognized he might not be around to see.

Dr. King said, in part:
we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it...if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed...We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying -- We are saying that we are God's children. And that we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live.
The problems that Dr. King preached about in the Civil Rights movement are problems that defined the relationship between Egyptians and Israelites in the days leading up to the Exodus; they define the conflict between those who support George Zimmerman and those who support Trayvon Martin; they define the upcoming presidential election in this country and they define politics on the global stage.

And the question remains, what will you do, what will each of us do, to shift the discussion, to change the problem.  How can this night indeed be different from all other nights?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Count on This...

People love to make lists.  Even before David Letterman turned Top Ten Lists into an art form, people were counting and categorizing information, organizing it into hierarchies.  There's something intrinsically satisfying about processing data in this manner.

But sometimes all that counting and listing can backfire.  The Tanach seems to say that counting is fraught with danger (at various junctures, a plague occurs following a census),  and suggests that other means--for instance, a tax collection--be used for determining the numbers of the Israelites, rather than a direct head count.  A superstition persists that rather than counting individuals in a minyan, you should say, "Not one, not two, not three..." or count according to a ten-word verse from scripture, in order to avoid the evil eye.

So, it is with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism, and concern that I read the list of "America's Top Rabbis for 2012" published by The Daily Beast and Newsweek.  The list, which has existed for a few years now, is compiled by Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of Time Warner; Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Corporation of America; Abigail Pogrebin, a former producer for 60 Minutes; and Raphael Magarik, an editor at the Daily Beast.  The group offers the disclaimer that they never intended the list to be taken quite as seriously as it is, and that it's entirely subjective.  They base their selection on innovation, the size of the rabbis' constituencies, impact, fame, and other criteria.

There are 50 slots for rabbis on this list (some rabbis are grouped together, making for more than 50 individuals listed).  Sixteen of the slots are occupied by Reform rabbis, most of whom I know in some capacity.  I am fairly certain that no one actively lobbied to be included on this list, so I do not mean my critique of the list to in any way impugn the individuals who are profiled therein.  Nor do I want to appear that I am saying this out of any sense of "sour grapes."

There are many things that go into being a wonderful rabbi.  Some are very public and visible.  Other things necessarily occur "behind the scenes."  The wonderful pastoral presence you encounter from your rabbi when he or she visits you at a moment of illness or a time of grief cannot be fully quantified, nor can anyone who was not present in that moment fully understand what it meant.  The handholding that a rabbi does with a nervous Bar or Bat Mitzvah student may not be visible in the actual (hopefully well-polished) leadership of the worship service.  There are numerous other unquantifiable yet meaningful moments that a rabbi may have with an individual--to say nothing of the rabbis who are doing incredibly meaningful work outside of traditional synagogues or institutions.

As Cantor Evan Kent so eloquently put it:
The top rabbi is the one who comforts your mother as she's dying in the hospital room; the top rabbi is the one who demands that you seek justice and you do; the top rabbi is a a rabbi who leads you toward a life of mitzvot and talmud torah; the top rabbi is the rabbi who blesses your daughter in front of the ark on the day of her Bat Mitzvah and leaves such an impression that your daughter seeks to learn more about her heritage and religion; the top rabbi is one who stops to answer the preschoolers question about "Where does God live...?"; the top rabbi is one who-along with the cantor- transforms worship into that which touches the heart, embraces the soul and leaves you forever transformed; the top rabbi is in short all the hardworking professionals who toil each and every day to create communities where Judaism is alive, where learning is real, where the prophetic vision lives daily, and where all all welcomed, diversity is celebrated, and ego is cast aside.

The same goes, I would add, for cantors and other Jewish professionals.  Some things just weren't meant to be categorized and counted.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What's Plaguing You?

Ever since people got the idea of moving beyond the classic Maxwell House Haggadah to jazz up their sedarim in some manner, the question has been posed: "What are the plagues of modern society?"

Many have pondered this, and have come up with answers far more creative and eloquent than I might devise.  So I'm certainly not claiming to be breaking any new ground with this post.  In my opinion, though, one of the greatest plagues of the modern era is our inability to engage in civil discourse.  Whatever your political, religious, or social stripe, I think it is not hard to recognize that there are those in every camp who are so convinced that their manner of thinking represents the only conceivable truth that they are unwilling to permit any dialogue that might run counter to these beliefs.  Certainly it can be admirable to cling to one's convictions in the face of adversity, but our society was made great by the willingness of many in generations to accept a diversity of viewpoints, and to strive toward compromise.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin titled her biography of Abraham Lincoln Team of Rivals, based on the courageous decision of our 16th president to appoint those whom he had bested in the 1860 Republican primary to positions of prominence in his administration.  Edward Bates became Attorney General; William Seward became Secretary of State; and Salmon P. Chase became Secretary of the Treasury.  By seeking the counsel of his former opponents, Lincoln strove to overcome divisiveness and welcome the views of those who differed from him.  While an imperfect system, it certainly seems preferable to the gridlock driven by animosity that seems to be the rule of today.

It makes me think of the satirist Tom Lehrer, who sang of National Brotherhood Week, noting that "to hate all of the right folks is an old established rule."

One can go to Egypt today and not encounter blood, frogs, and the like.  Eventually, sanity was restored to that nation.  Similarly, one can hope that we can overcome this modern plague and restore harmony in our lives.

Monday, April 2, 2012


A congregant recently shared a joke with me: "In Seattle, what do you call the day that follows two days of cold and rain?"  The answer?  "Monday."

The Seattle stereotype is that we are the "Rain City."  In fact, we rank far below Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and New York in average annual precipitation, measured in inches.  But, the perception sticks.  And while we complain from time-to-time, most of us are willing to "stick it out" (you rarely see a true Seattle resident using an umbrella) because we know what the benefit is: the rains of winter and spring give rise to lush greenery during the summer-- bright trees and flowers, ripe berries, and other produce of the Pacific Northwest couldn't exist without that rain.

Joe Raposo's "Bein' Green," originally composed for Kermit the Frog to sing on Sesame Street, and re-recorded by numerous artists over the years, begins with a lament about being green, before the bridge leads us to a message of hope:

But green is the color of spring
And green can be cool and friendly-like
And green can be big like a mountain
Or important like a river
Or tall like a tree.
And the song concludes:

When green is all there is to be
It could tend to make you wonder why
But why wonder, why wonder?
I am green, and it'll do fine
It's beautiful, and I think it's what I want to be
So, why wonder?  Enjoy the rebirth of spring, and enjoy being green.

Please note: I do not own the video below and make no claim to it...copyrights belong to all applicable owners.