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Good Bye, Vassar Temple

June 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Though I started working at Vassar Temple five years ago, I first heard about the place two years before that from my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Shoshana Hantman. “They’re a really nice group of people,” she was fond of saying about Vassar Temple.

With only a few exceptions, she was absolutely right.

Vassar-Temple-Office-Door

Artistic gifts from students and teachers adorn my office door

And I say that having observed or consulted to hundreds of schools on five continents (soon to be six!). In fact, when I would tell my colleagues where I was working, the single most consistent response mirrored Rabbi Hantman’s remarks: “That’s a nice congregation,” frequently followed by a kind reference to Rabbi Arnold and Rabbi Golomb, and, most recently, Rabbi Berkowitz.

As I look back on five years, I certainly don’t want to minimize our technical accomplishments together. We built a thriving Hebrew school that draws members from neighboring congregations. We quadrupled the size of the post-bar/bat mitzvah Wednesday evening program. We grew the overall school by eight percent year over year when most religious schools are losing students.

Those feats, noteworthy in themselves, are also good for the financial heath of the congregation: good for the Jews and good for the bottom line, one might say. Or, as Rabbi Stuart Geller observes: the religious school is the financial engine that pulls the synagogue train.

So I don’t want to make light of bringing in new members or of increasing enrollment. But neither are these statistics the things that stand out most in my mind.

Rather, I remember non-tangible manifestations of a holy community.

For example, when our last Hebrew-school session of the year for grades 5-7 came to an end at 6:00pm on the Wednesday before Passover, the nearly 20 students in attendance refused to leave. Instead of bolting out of the school — as children so often do in other settings when class ends — they stayed behind, savoring a few final moments with each other and their Hebrew teachers. Surely this is what the Rabbis had in mind when they inserted the line into our morning liturgy, “make the words of your Torah sweet to us.”

When four Sunday-school teachers called in sick at the last minute last year, the remaining, healthy teachers jumped into action to run a constructive program together. One high school-aged teacher offered to teach a different class, improvising as she went. Another agreed to teach alone, though she had planned to work with a partner. And so on down the line. Though extreme, that day was hardly atypical, as teachers regularly volunteered to help each other out, never losing the smiles that came to symbolize our time together on Sunday mornings. What better way could there be to realize the Rabbis’ hope that we serve God together in joy?

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Good-bye selfie

The list goes on: Sixth graders who eagerly anticipated their opportunity — though at least two years away — to teach in the school. Middle- and high-school students who insisted on starting each class with, “How was your week?” Grade-school students who were so proud of their work that they begged me to come into their classrooms for a closer look. Students who complained when I canceled class for snow that never arrived. Teachers who focused not just on what we were teaching but even more on who we were teaching.

In Pirkei Avot — “The Sayings of the Ancestors” from almost 2,000 years ago — Rabbi Shimon declares that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, service to God, and kindness. Later, still in the spirit of groups of three, he enumerates three crowns: the crown of monarchy, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Then, having listed three, he adds a fourth, a crown that outweighs the other three: the crown of a good name.

More than a millennium later, Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartenura wrote about this, suggesting that the crown of a good name refers specifically to a good reputation for doing good deeds.

Taken together, Ovadiah and Shimon tell us that being known for the right things is more important than royalty, more important than religious leadership, and even more important than Torah itself.

And this is what I will remember from my five years running the school at Vassar Temple: students, parents, teachers, leaders, and rabbis who in overwhelming majority are deservedly known for the way, through personal example, that they model the three things upon which the world stands: Torah, service to God, and great kindness.

Blessed is God, who crowns us with glory.




[An abridged version of this piece first appeared in the Vassar Temple June, 2016 bulletin.]

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Categories: education, Judaism, religion

Why Mississippi’s Religious Liberties Law Is More Nuanced Than You Think

April 6, 2016 5 comments

Law-and-Gay-Marriage-MississippiDo you think that a wedding florist should be allowed to deny service to a gay couple just because they’re gay?

Do you think that a Jewish photographer should be allowed to refuse photography services to a Neo-Nazi group just because of the nature of that group?

Do you think that a store — on religious grounds — should be allowed to refuse insurance coverage for birth control?

Do you think that an advertising agency — on contrary religious grounds — should be allowed to refuse to help that store’s owners explain their position?

PullquoteIf you have different answers for these four questions, then you appreciate the complexity of Mississippi’s controversial “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” (HB 1523), which was just signed into law; of Georgia’s similar “Free Exercise Protection Act” (HB 757), which that state’s governor vetoed; and of similar legislation.

Mississippi’s law claims to protect people, and groups of people, who act based on a “sincerely held” belief or “moral conviction” in any of three hotly debated tenets:

  1. Marriage is only between one man and one woman.
  2. Sex should be confined to such a one-man-one-woman marriage.
  3. People have only one gender (“sex”), the biological one with which they were born.

Opponents to the law say it legalizes discrimination against, for example, gay couples.

Proponents counter that it protects religious freedoms.

In my opinion, both claims are right (though that doesn’t mean that I think both sides have equal merit). The Mississippi law generates such vehemence precisely because it pits one cherished American value against another.

In this country we believe in equality before the law. We have already established, for instance, that it’s illegal to set out to hire men instead of equally qualified women, no matter how much an employer may prefer working with men.

In this country we also believe in freedom of religion. We have already established, for instance, that the Church can bar women from certain positions of leadership, no matter how qualified they might otherwise be.

Or to look at it differently, the opponents to Mississippi’s law say that, in this case, equality trumps religious freedom. Proponents say that these religious freedoms trump equality.

And here, I think, is the real issue: when these two supreme values collide, which one do we, as a society, choose? And why?

Unfortunately, the public conversation plays out differently.

Proponents double down, defending their religious position, for instance, that marriage is, was, and always shall be between one man and one women. (I think they’re wrong, but that isn’t the point.) They ignore the fact that similar religious arguments were advanced in the 19th century to defend slavery. And they ignore the fact that even Christian-owned stores are not allowed to discriminate against women, even though the Church is.

Opponents also double down, defending their position, for instance, that a marriage between two men is just as valid as a marriage between a man and a women. They ignore the fact that they might experience supreme discomfort if they had to work in support of the KKK. (The KKK probably takes offense at my position, but that isn’t the point.) And they ignore the fact that laws already permit religious gender-based discrimination.

So I have a challenge:

If you defend this law, why do you think that these particular religious beliefs are more important than equality? That is, how is an anti-gay-marriage stance different than, say, 19th-century pro-slavery religious beliefs or, more generally, other gender-based religious beliefs?

If you oppose this law, why do you think that these particular religious beliefs should be squashed? That is, how is forcing people to support gay marriage different than, say, forcing people to work on their sabbath, or forcing people to support other things they don’t like, such as perhaps, the KKK?

And in the meantime, as we continue to discuss this law, perhaps we can at least tread softly out of respect for people who disagree with us.

Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof — And My People

December 11, 2015 1 comment
Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof.  (Yes, that's me with Bartlett Sher, the man who arranged the wonderful visit from my ancestors.)

Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof. (Yes, that’s me with Bartlett Sher, the man who arranged the wonderful visit from my ancestors.)

Thinly disguised, my ancestors and tradition visited me earlier this week. There they were on the Broadway stage of Fiddler on the Roof — hiding in the shadows, animating the props, and permeating the set — barely masked by actors, lights, costumes, dancing, and song.

I love musical theater, and of course I’ve seen Fiddler before. Many times.

But for me Fiddler on the Roof is different than other shows, because this one is about me, about my people, and about my journey. Like most of my recent ancestors, my grandfather — the only grandparent I really knew — came from the kind of Eastern European shtetl in which Fiddler is set.

To be sure, my grandfather’s life was both more mundane and more extraordinary than anything in Fiddler. He didn’t marry off a daughter to a man in Siberia, he didn’t dance with cossacks in taverns, and he didn’t (I don’t think) have a mysterious fiddler variously serving as companion and nemesis.

Equally, my grandfather didn’t leave his village as part of a collective exodus. He left alone. Then most of his family perished.

But my grandfather did light shabbos candles. He treasured his heritage. He lived his life as a stranger in a foreign land. And he grappled with the balance between tradition and modernity. For that matter, so do I.

When the on-stage characters welcomed shabbos with candles, wine, bread, and blessings, I saw more than just generations past. I saw a snapshot from my childhood and a mirror of my life today. When Yenta announced that she was moving to the Holy Land, I heard more than a mere desire for new scenery. And when Tevye (played masterfully by Danny Burstein) quarreled with God, I felt his pain.

Interestingly, as much as the plot in Fiddler is about tradition, the musical itself is replete with its own traditions. So any new production both depicts and exemplifies the difficult task of balancing what was with what can be, of preserving the past while still addressing the present. This new rendition struck me as masterful in this regard, so I felt particularly privileged to head backstage and meet some of the people who created it: the director and a handful of the actors.

Then the stage manager told us how drab and mundane the area backstage is. There’s nothing exciting about it — at least, not to judge by appearances — in contrast to the on-stage magic that brings the past vividly to life. Yet if the stage depicts the timeless reality of my people, it’s the quotidian reality of the present backstage that makes it possible. Which is real, and which the real fiction? Past and present, extraordinary and commonplace, grandiose and picayune — life is apparently woven from a disparate and mutating mixture of threads.

Fiddler ends on a precarious note of uncertainty as the inhabitants of the fictitious Anatevka leave their village. Does their journey lead to a brighter future? Or have they left behind what they value most? They don’t know. In the storybook of my own life, I know that both are true, because I know what the characters do not: the glory of America, the unprecedented tragedy of the holocaust, the miracle of Modern Israel, the rumblings of renewed fear in Europe, the promise of the future, the lessons from our past.

My personal chapter in that storybook has yet to conclude, of course, and I obviously wasn’t around before it began. So it was a treat to look back a few chapters and revisit my place in an ever-unfolding adventure that, I am still convinced, is graced by light and joy and happiness and honor and God.

Categories: Judaism, religion, spirituality

On Camp Eisner, Seeing the Future, and Combating Bullying

July 19, 2015 2 comments

A trip to Eisner offers a glimpse into a glorious future framed by the perspective of our past. What else can you call it when hundreds of children, teens, and young adults from around the world gather in unpretentious worship to sing ancient words as given new voice with modern melodies?

PullQuoteI arrived for Shabbat morning services, held indoors, this time, in deference to the threatening weather. The predominantly musical morning was punctuated by short interpretations of Torah, each one presented by a group of three campers, and each one addressing the topic of promises.

A theme emerged: the promise not to bully. I happen to know that a sign in the dining room proclaims Eisner a bully-free zone. I didn’t know that campers, as part of a pledge they sign when they arrive, promise not to bully.

It seems that the plague of bullying is a modern one. There’s no ancient Jewish discussion of it. There isn’t even a Hebrew word for “bullying.”

But our sages were well aware of the power of words. Gossip, even based in truth, is likened to a capital offense in Judaism. You’re not allowed to speak ill of people behind their backs.

Equally, our tradition forbids unwarranted hostility, proclaims the absolute value of human dignity, and decries enslavement of any sort. Bullying aggressively boxes people into an ignoble cage of powerlessness. The Rabbis — who insisted that even if no one else is behaving well, you must strive to — would have been revolted. So like new melodies for timeless words, Eisner’s campaign against bullying is a new passion born of timeless values.

Visitors often want to bring home the beauty they find at Eisner. The campers at Eisner have suggested a first step: take an Eisner-like anti-bullying pledge.

The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor Goes On Sale Today

September 2, 2014 1 comment

Ever wonder what happened to Adam and Eve after they left the Garden of Eden? There’s an answer, but it was cut from the Bible.

Curious about how Abraham discovered monotheism? That was cut too.

So was the once-popular Book of Enoch, written before the Book of Daniel and quoted in the New Testament.

Though they fell to the Bible’s cutting room floor, we still have the ancient texts that answer these and similar questions, filling in blanks in our current version of the Bible.

In addition, these fascinating writings from antiquity offer surprisingly modern insight into the nature of our lives as they explore good and evil.

These are the topics of my latest book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible, which goes on sale today.

I hope you enjoy it.

Categories: Bible, religion, spirituality

What’s the Deal with the Camels in the Bible?

February 12, 2014 2 comments

Camels-GenesisSo far this week, the New York Times and Time Magazine, among many other usually respectable news outlets, have reported on scientific evidence that camels weren’t domesticated until about the 10th century BCE. That’s true.

They add that this is a problem for the Bible because Abraham and the other patriarchs, who owned camels, lived much earlier. This part is wrong. And it demonstrates a pretty surprising naivete on the part of these and other mainstream news organizations.

First of all, let’s be clear. According to Genesis, Abraham lived to be 175 years old, so it’s not the camels that are hard to explain.

But the real misunderstanding is demonstrated by this line from the New York Times: “Abraham, Jacob and Joseph […] lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C.” No they didn’t.

As I’ve explained in detail in And God Said — and summarized on-line for the Huffington Post (“The Bible Isn’t The History You Think It Is“) — the Old Testament is divided into three sections: the creation of the world (Adam up to Abraham’s father Terah), the creation of the Israelites (Abraham to Moses) and life in Jerusalem (after Moses). Only the third part was meant as history. The first two parts — Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and all the rest — serve other purposes.

So Abraham didn’t live in the first half of the second millennium, just like the heroine in Song of Solomon didn’t have birds for eyes, in spite of the poetic line in verse 4:1 that her “eyes are doves.”

Though I’m regularly surprised that so much misinformation surrounds the Bible, this kind of widespread mistake does help explain why many scientists don’t appreciate the Bible’s value, and why many religionists increasingly have no use for science.

A Short Torah Story

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Torah DrowningIt was raining, so we started by talking about that. As it happens, one of the kids had just come back from Colorado, recently ravaged by floods, so the conversation naturally turned to flooding. That segued into flood damage, followed by what one might save in a flood, and, from there, saving a Torah in a flood.

It was Sunday morning, and I was teaching 7th graders.

“Would you save a Torah from drowning?” I asked the class.

“Yes,” all of the students agreed.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” one of the students replied, “it would do the same for me.” Tee hee.

The funny thing is that it would.

I explained why.

The Torah is one of the three parts of the Bible, the other two being the “prophets” and the “writings.” The students’ haftarah portions come from the prophets. The writings include well-known works like the Book of Esther (more commonly known as the “Megilah” and read or chanted on Purim), Psalms (such as the famous Psalm 23 that begins “The Lord is my Shepherd”), and so on.

The great Rabbis gave us two major kinds of commentary on the Bible, the first in the form of the Midrash, and the second in the form of the Talmud. It’s that second compendium that offers advice on all manner of things: when to light Shabbat candles and how to read the Torah, why some kinds of damages are like oxen but others like pits, what kind of damage an ox owner is responsible for and why only dead elephants can be used as a wall for sukkah, etc.

One passage in the Talmud section known as kiddushin addresses the obligations a parent has toward a child, including the stipulation that the parents are supposed to teach their children to swim.

Without the Torah, we wouldn’t have the Bible. Without the Bible, there’d be no Talmud. And it’s the Talmud that records the importance of knowing how to swim.

It’s a round-about result, but the Torah did save us from drowning. The student had it exactly right.

This is how a conversation about the weather and our weekend plans turned into a lesson about the centrality of Torah in our lives.



[First published in the Vassar Temple November 2013 bulletin.]