Holiday-Free Judaism

Tel Aviv, 2017

For the next month and change there won’t be any major Jewish holidays. That leaves some Jews wondering how to engage “Jewishly” since the holidays provide both an occasion and a script for Jewish experiences. The truth is actually quite simple: Judaism without holidays is, in many ways, much more engaging and fulfilling than Judaism with all the holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shimini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. But there’s something simple and sublime when Jewish energy isn’t focused on a particular calendar date and holiday observance.

This annual, holiday-free period in Judaism reminds me that Judaism is most meaningful when it informs my daily life. It’s most powerful when it permeates the seemingly mundane activities that fill my days and weeks. Taking care of my family, throwing myself into my work, trying to keep up with current events and old friends. Sitting in traffic. Grocery shopping. Scrolling through my phone.

Holiday-free Judaism gives me the space to focus on some of the non-calendrical aspects of Judaism: the weekly Torah portion, the meaning of the prayers I recite, mindful eating. Things like that. It’s a chance for me to challenge myself to keep my Jewish commitments dynamic and authentic.

Coming off the holidays of Tishrei there’s no doubt that I’m energized. And I’m bringing that energy into my daily Jewish practice. But the reverse is true as well, my daily Jewish practice is what makes the holidays meaningful and energizing to begin with.

 

Science and Religion

As a day school rabbi I work with kids pretty much every day. Having been at it for the last decade, I’m now able to say, somewhat conclusively, that there are certain perennial topics that kids are curious about. One of them is the relationship between science and religion. Because kids seem to linger in the “either/or” stage of things until at least about grade 6, they mostly want to know how science and religion can both be “true” when they say such different things. The most common example they raise is that of the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and evolution. None of this should be surprising!

The best part about kids’ big questions is that they’re really conversation starters. For that reason, there are lots of ways to engage kids in discussions that stem from their natural interests. One potential thread of conversation involves helping kids see how science and religion both seek to understand the way the world works. Another potential thread is to point them towards religious ideas that seem to be expressing ideas more commonly associated with science.

Genesis 1:6-7 is an interesting passage in this respect. These verses describe how God “divided the waters” during the early stages of creation. Some of the water was placed below and some placed above, with a firmament in between. This passage seems to suggest that the Torah has some understanding of the water cycle. It’s not immediately obvious that the sea and the sky are so intimately connected, and yet the Torah clearly understands this.

Giving kids a chance to reflect on whether Genesis 1:6-7 reflects an understanding of the water cycle is a cool idea. As part of such a lesson we could also point out that the Hebrew word for water, mayim, is closely related to the Hebrew word for sky/heavens: shamayim. After exploring that for a bit we also explore the fact that the difference between the two words: mayim and shamayim is the presence of the letter shin. The letter shin is significant because it’s a letter that is closely associated with God. For example, it appears on the outside of most mezuzot representing the name Shaddai. All of a sudden we’re engaged in a conversation that organically explores both science and religion, natural law and theology. And all at a level that a Judaically literate 5th grader can not only understand but really contribute to.

As we read the opening chapters of Genesis this Shabbat, let’s not miss opportunities to really engage with these fascinating words and the world that they envision and in which we live. 

Shemini Atzeret

Jerusalem, 2016

 

What is Shemini Atzeret? I can’t imagine how many Jews have asked that question and are still left wondering! Here’s a bit of an explanation/interpretation.

Shemini Atzeret is a festival that follows immediately on the heels of Sukkot, one of the 3 major festivals of Jewish tradition. Because Shemini Atzeret starts just as Sukkot is ending, many people conflate the two holidays, not understanding that they are, in fact, distinct.

When The Temple stood in Jerusalem, Shemini Atzeret included a sacrificial offering and special meal. It was understood that this sacrifice and meal were meant to be a symbol of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. Building from that idea, Shemini Atzeret came to be a day dedicated to reflecting on the relationship between God and Israel. Medieval commentators, like Rashi, explained that, Shemini Atzeret was God’s way of asking the Jewish people to linger a little longer in the connectedness that comes with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Israeli Supreme Court

While many Jewish holidays were transformed or expanded after the destruction of The Temple, Shemini Atzeret (with the exception of the addition of Simchat Torah) hasn’t taken on any additional ritual observances. In fact, the only ritual observance on Shemini Atzeret today is to recite a prayer for rain. What we’re left with then, is a day set aside to simply dwell in our relationship with God.

The way I understand it, Shemini Atzeret is a day meant for focusing on being rather than doing. It’s a day for reflecting on self, other, community, nature, and God. For that reason, I’m coming to view it as the perfect holiday for our world today. I think our collective human consciousness would be completely transformed if all of us took a collective Atzeret, a collective day to focus on being and to focus on self, other, community, nature, and God. Think we can make it happen?

“Life is a journey, where are you?”

What’s it like to be a rabbi?

I have a cherished colleague. Her name is Dr. M. Cathy Harmon-Christian. She teaches in the theology department at Marist. Among other things, she and I have a chavruta, a study-based friendship. It’s a lot of fun. An offshoot of that chavruta is that every so often she’ll send along a question asked by her students. “What’s it like to be a rabbi?” is one such question. Knowing that there may be lots of folks who are curious about this and other topics, I figure I’ll type my response here, rather than in an email.

What’s it like to be a rabbi?

On good days? It’s awesome. On bad days? It’s awesome. The main thing about being a rabbi is that I never get to rest on yesterday’s accomplishments, interactions, or ministering. I honestly believe that every day I have to earn the title “rabbi.” I think that while I am a rabbi, I have to stay a rabbi. I also think that being a rabbi is really a process of becoming. I’m trying to become the type of human being, Jew, and rabbi that I think I’m meant to be.

Being a rabbi has its opportunities and challenges. Opportunities– to do all sorts of amazing things, to live a life of study and spiritual reflection, to engage people in meaningful growth and exploration, to celebrate holidays deeply and fully. To be a rabbi is to be in relationship. With congregants, students, fellow rabbis, and people of all faiths and no faiths. It’s also to be in relationship to nature, all creation, and God, the Source of Creation. It’s to question, to study, to be present, to celebrate, to witness, to sanctify, and to bless. It’s exciting work.

Challenges– a lot of people think your first name is rabbi. Sometimes people forget that there’s a person behind the title. And sometimes the work that we do is the work of healing, of standing in the breach, of confronting the injustices of the world. But those challenges are also opportunities.

When I was in college my parents asked me a very reasonable question: What do you want to do with your life? My response, which came to me fairly quickly, was totally unexpected. I want to be a rabbi. At the time I knew that I wanted to live a life of service, of study, of relationship, of spiritual exploration. I knew that rabbis got to do all these things and more. I’m very happy with my decision and continue to explore my answer to that very reasonable question through the work that I do and the life that I live.

An Incomplete Meditation on Connectedness

An Incomplete Meditation on Connectedness
 
I am connected
 
to this computer
 
to this couch
 
to the sounds of the white noise machines in my kids’ rooms being carried through the speaker of our video monitor
 
to the buzzer on the drying machine and the great folding that awaits 
 
to having brushed my teeth to avoid mindless snacking
 
to the pile of paperwork immediately to my right and all the past, present, and future that it represents
—-
 
to my mom, who emailed me today with teacher resources about the Las Vegas massacre and told me about someone she knows who lost someone they know
 
to my brother who worked in a hotel on the Vegas Strip many years ago and my other brother who didn’t
 
to my brother-in-law who just spent the weekend with us and the brisket we smoked while he was here, the leftovers of which I ate for dinner tonight
 
to my wife, who is out teaching tonight
 
to my entire family, to all my friends, even the ones I have to read about on Facebook instead of hug
—-
 
to the words of Torah that were chanted this morning
 
to the timeless values that they represent
 
to the teachers I met with today in various permutations and on various subjects
 
to the students that sang with me in our nature sanctuary this morning
 
and those that didn’t
 
to the people I missed today and the people I connected with
to Tom Petty, dancing between life and death, among the wildflowers
 
to Jerry Garcia, who died before Twitter and Facebook, but who sings over my speakers almost every day
 
to music
 
to sound 
 
to breathing
 
to silence
 
there goes the drying machine
 
These connections break and mend my heart moment by moment
 
They obligate and liberate me
 
They teach me, outrage me, humble me, and remind me
 
To the extent that there is a me, they are me, and I them
 
Any meditation on connectedness that has a start and finish is necessarily incomplete 
 
Both start and finish are made up points on a made up line 
 
All that’s true is the unspeakably awesome truth toward which they direct my attention

Predictions for 5778

Tel Aviv, 2017

 

Here are some predictions for 5778. I’m pretty confident they’ll come to pass.

5778 will be a year of…

radical love and radical hatred

profound peace and profound violence

deep connection and deep alienation

wisdom and folly

clarity and ambiguity

health and sickness

laughter and tears

life and death

progress and decline

momentum and inertia

understanding and ignorance

awakening and mindlessness

blossoming and annihilation

hope and despair

courage and fear

showing up and disappearing

abundance and scarcity

My confidence in these predictions is based on the fact that 5778 has already been all of these things and more. Often in the same moment. Every moment that this earth spins, so long as we’re here to dance on it, all of these phenomena exist simultaneously. It’s all happening now. And now again. To assert anything otherwise is to deny and ignore the complexity, richness, and infinite potential of the present moment. It’s all happening now. And I feel that its our task to cultivate within ourselves a witness to it all. To lift up that which we feel needs to be lifted up and to lovingly discard that which we think is hurtful to us, all humanity, and earth.

Overcoming Boredom: Rabbinic Advice for High Holy Day Services

Tel Aviv, 2017

 

In spite of our collective best efforts, I still hear people reporting anticipatory boredom when discussing their upcoming attendance at High Holy Day services. It’s a shame for a couple of reasons. First, High Holy Day services actually aren’t boring at all. Second, with all that life has to offer, there’s no reason to be bored anywhere or anytime. Here’s a quick list of suggestions for those that may be afflicted with this perennial plight.

  1. As you participate in services, ask yourself whether anything that is being said, shared, sung, or otherwise communicated reminds you of something that you know to be true but have forgotten. If so, explore that. What do know? How do you know it? Why or how have you forgotten it? Allow the various input channels of the High Holy Days to evoke in you a process of remembering.
  2. Argue. Pay close attention for things with which you disagree. Whether in the sermon, in the liturgy, or elsewhere. It’s hard to be bored when you’re fired up about something. Activate your critical and analytical skills.
  3. Meditate. Close your eyes. Relax. Breathe. Focus. Listen to the sounds around you, be they the turning of the pages, the melodies of the holy days, the sound of your loved ones or neighbors.
  4. Do theology. How many different God ideas are communicated or explored during the High Holy Days? Which resonate? Which don’t? Which seem helpful to the future thriving of humanity and our planet? Which might, in fact, be problematic? If you don’t believe in God, spend some time identifying the God you don’t believe in. Here’s a helpful tip: there are many names for God in Jewish tradition. Most of those names aren’t proper names but are actually attributes or descriptors of God. Use those as a gateway into theology.
  5. Time travel. Take a moment to think of yourself as a child during this season. Does anything come to mind? Then think about your parents. Your grandparents. Go back through the generations and imagine how they encountered Rosh Hashanah. What kind of vision or image are you able to conjure?
  6. Pray. Pray for the world. Pray for humanity. Pray for your loved ones. Pray for yourself.
  7. Look for coherence, look for tension. Does the prayer book, the synagogue, the congregation, offer a coherent world view? Or are there tensions and maybe even contradictions embedded in the text, the place, and the people? Coherence might be a good thing, but tension might be as well. Are you informed enough to offer a thought or perspective on this question? If not, can you be?
  8. Read the marginalia. Most prayer books are treasure troves of information. Most have lots of genres and types of material in them. Take a look at the margins, at the introduction, at the index. What do you find that you haven’t seen before? What’s missing? What biases, assumptions, themes, or tendencies does your prayer book reveal?
  9. Smile.
  10. Listen. To the still small voice inside of you. To the music. To the voices from the bimah. To the whispers around you. To the small talk. To the sermons. To the HVAC. To the silence.

Celebrating our Human Voice: S’lichot at The Temple

Last night, I had the honor of leading a Selichot program at my home congregation, The Temple. Over the course of two hours our congregation gathered in a generous and engaged spirit for study, spiritual writing, and worship. It was a special evening for me personally because I was able to integrate three passions of my rabbinate: teaching, nurturing creativity, and sharing my original music.

Joined by Will Robertson, my musical chevruta, producer, and songwriting partner, Caroline Patterson, one of the most talented and thoughtful vocalists I’ve ever worked with, and Bob Michek, a truly professional percussionist and longtime bandmate, I finally had a chance to share some of the quieter, more reflective, and gentler of the music I’ve written over the last couple of years. Creating music alongside such talented and dedicated friends and musicians, being able to share that music, and then seeing that the music has meaning and resonance for others who are new to it— that was a gift for sure.

The title of this post is the theme that we selected for the evening. That theme was woven through the study, the spiritual writing, and the worship. For lots of reasons, I’m very curious about and interested in The Human Voice. I’m interested in the human voice because, kind of like breathing, it’s something that we almost always take for granted. In preparing for last night, I wrote a vision of what the time together might address. Here’s that description for those that might be interested and also so I can look back on it and remember the thought process that led to such a special evening of community learning and spiritual connection.

Description

Through a combination of shiur, spiritual journaling workshop, and Shabbat/Slichot Tefilah participants will have a chance to reflect on our human voice and their particular human voice. The human voice is our most precious and unique instrument for communication yet most of us fail to fully attend to and care for it. How do we cultivate our voice? How do we honor it? How do we project it into the spaces and places that we feel summoned to do so? How do we listen to our own voice, how do hear and experience the voices of others? In what areas do we suffer from an abundance of words? In what areas do we lack the necessary language to articulate our thoughts and feelings? In short—how can we become better listeners and speakers in a world that so desperately needs us to be both of these things.  Before officially entering the Yamim Noraim it is both necessary and profoundly meaningful to reflect on the voice that we are bringing with us to this sacred time.

Asking for a Friend

Asking for a Friend

For

permission & forgiveness

compassion & judgment

discretion & sharing

warnings & recommendations

teaching & learning

seeing & believing

witnessing & forgetting

embracing & discarding

approval & disdain

sharing & keeping

tears of all kinds

tears of all kinds

presence & companionship

now & always

Tel Aviv, 2017