It’s the Music

I dedicate this Before Shabbat to our Cantorial Leader, Susan Glickman, on the eve of her retirement. Her love of music and ability to convey that love with authentic joy and kindness is a gift to the hearts and souls of us all. Thank you always, Susan.

This weekend, Taylor Swift is performing at Gillette. You might think the Messiah was in town. It’s all over social media, news, even weather reports. There are apocalyptic traffic warnings and suggestions on what to wear to the show. I don’t know what it is about Taylor Swift that accounts for her extraordinary popularity and the desperation of her fans to see her. I could climb on my high horse and strongly critique her pouty, post-adolescent, coming-of-age music, but I was taught a long time ago never to judge someone else’s music if it came from a sincere place, and I think Taylor Swift seems sincere. There is something in Swift’s music that touches particular hearts, and that’s beautiful.

Like my siblings, I have a deep, abiding love of music. We grew up with a high-end stereo system (McIntosh preamp and amp), and music played often. There was a limited selection of lps: some classical, some show tunes, and a couple of Richard Tucker albums, one featuring opera and the other Jewish greatest hits.

My mother’s singing was more important than the music playing in the living room. She sang all the time: at home, in the car, and while she shopped. Much to my chagrin, she sang along to the muzak at the Food Fair supermarket on Route 66. I was convinced that she would be arrested. Or worse – someone would see me with her and then shame me at school. “Oh – you’re the dope with the singing mother!”

I realize now that no one cared that my diminutive mother sang as she shopped. If anyone had anything to say about it, they’d probably mention that she had a great voice – and she did! If you were to ask her why she sang all the time, she would shrug her shoulders and say that it made her feel good – she couldn’t help it!

My sibs and I have music in our DNA. We can’t help it. Listening to music, performing it, going to concerts, turning up the volume, and needing to hear it are all manifestations of the centrality of music in my life. I need music around me always. Sometimes it’s about comfort. As the William Congreve quote goes, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.” Sometimes it’s about the peculiar pleasure I get in listening to a sad song, which apparently has a chemical origin. “It is conjectured that high prolactin concentrations are associated with pleasurable music-induced sadness.”

I want music in happy or sad times, celebrations, or break-ups. I have soundtracks in my head for various occasions, accompanying me on my way. I’ve told my children that if, God forbid, I become extremely ill in my old age and no longer want to listen to music, that’s the time to pull the plug. I identify music that closely with my life force.

Music floats through many souls and twists around lots of DNA strands. The message over and over is that music defines and enhances the human experience. It is fundamental to human consciousness. The oldest musical instrument ever found comes from a cave in Slovenia. It’s a flute made from a baby bear femur by a Neanderthal over 50,000 years ago. That’s older than the cave drawings in France!

But long before the femur flute was tooled, ancient homo sapiens and Neanderthals undoubtedly banged on tree trunks and stalagmites with sticks, clapped their hands, and vocally emitted sounds of joy and ecstasy and pain. Because, like us, they sought to express themselves when there were no words. They knew that words would never be enough even if they had a vocabulary. Like us, they sang and swayed as they laughed and cried because they understood the briefness of life, its bliss, and its sorrows. They loved music and sang because they couldn’t help it.

The Chance to Dance

Sometimes when I get up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep, I get some inspiration from – King Achashverosh – you know, Esther’s husband from the Purim story. When he couldn’t sleep, he called on one of his servants to read to him (it’s good to be the king).

Alas! I have no servant to read aloud to me, and I am not waking up my wife… So what’s a commoner to do? Luckily, I have an equivalent source of good reading. I have to read to myself.

In those insomniac times, I peruse my Evernote account, which is jammed with hundreds of articles I’ve clipped, recipes, sermon ideas, links to various music and movie websites, etc. I’ll often randomly click here and there and see what interests me at a particular time.

This is how I found an article from the New York Times I’d clipped 17 years ago. It’s about Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist who runs a special ballet class in Bayside, Queens, NY. Once a week, she instructs eight girls, all of whom have cerebral palsy and other debilitating physical conditions, in the art of ballet.

Some girls can’t walk; others wear braces or need canes and walkers. The girls all know that they are not like “the others.”  They already know that they will never run, jump, or walk without assistance. But their mobility limitations have not extinguished their dreams of wearing a pink tutu and fluttering across the stage. 

Ms. Ferrara heard those wistful dreams and came to a decision. There had to be a way to help these resilient, resolute girls fulfill their deepest, most wistful desire. “I just want them to feel the sheer joy of moving and to be proud of themselves,” Ms. Ferrara said. She assigned each girl an assistant to help them move their bodies and take their positions. “The girls stood in a line onstage, supported by their assistants behind them, lifting and turning them to the music.”  Who were these teen assistants? Angels, no doubt.

Some of our children will cure diseases. Or write a great novel. Or defend an innocent person. Or help people plan exciting events. Or fix a broken bone. Or build a beautiful building. We depend on them to move our awkward civilization forward with good works, generosity, and Jewish values planted deeply in their hearts.

And some of our children will, with difficulty, get by. They will file folders. Or serve French fries. Or bag groceries. And we, their parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, or neighbors, will pray for them. A lot. For the littlest things like kindness and mercy. And we pray that a woman like Joann Ferrara might appear in their lives – and thus, in our lives, granting us blessing, shedding God’s sweet love with her holy acts of understanding and grace. Now that’s a bedtime story worth reading. Every night.

Shabbat Shalom.


Liberty and Justice

In the midst of a hundred news stories that blip on and off every 5 minutes, one particularly caught my eye. Yesterday, four Proud Boys were convicted of seditious conspiracy for plotting to keep President Donald J. Trump in power after his election defeat by leading a violent mob to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

My first reaction to this story was a deep sense of gladness. Of course, whenever bad guys get their just desserts, it’s gratifying. So much of the time, justice is relative. Evil people who commit crimes often find a way to go free by using loopholes embedded in the system. We were able to bring these dangerous racists to court and prove their culpability.

My second reaction was a victorious fist bump. The Proud Boys are taken down a notch or two? Yes! Everything this organization stands for is vile: Here are some of the critical tenets of the Proud Boys’ philosophy:

Western culture is superior to all others.

White people are the superior race.

Islam is a violent religion.

Jews are seeking to subvert the destiny of white people.

Feminism is a cancer.

Women should be subservient to men.

The Proud Boys are a fraternity of men loyal to each other and Western culture.

The Proud Boys are willing to use violence to defend Western civilization.

My third reaction was one of hopefulness. Qualified hopefulness, maybe, but hopefulness is just the same. History has seen many groups like Proud Boys all over the world. They are always men with grievances, guys who can’t catch a break, who see others getting some of what they cannot attain. They don’t get the attention of the media. They seem unable to get the best jobs or the best girls. They feel cheated. Someone is preventing them from getting what is rightly theirs because they are white and Christian. It’s the Muslims who have sought their demise since the Crusades a thousand years ago. Black people get jobs and university placement with affirmative action, which cheats white people. Immigrants steal jobs from white people and seek, at the direction of the Jews, to replace White Christian men in every conceivable context. By building a minority-majority in America, brown and black people, under the supervision of the Jews, will run the government. The US will become “minority white” in 2045. During that year, whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the population, compared to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations. This terrifies white supremacist groups like Proud Boys.

In so many cases, when these fearful white hate groups act out in violence, they are not punished. Often there is a nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude from the police or local governments. The Klan. The Nazi Party. Golden Dawn in Greece are just a few examples of hate groups allowed to spread hate with little official interference.

But not here. There is a commitment from the Justice Department to call out violence against others and call it by its name: sedition. Hate crimes. Fascism. In such moments I feel hopeful that there is still a commitment to the dream of our nation, a multi-ethnic stew of people from all over with different ethnic roots, religions, skin tones, and sexual orientations, and all of us committed to the diversity that enriches our culture and our economy.

I am worried about the ongoing culture clash in our nation. I am vexed by people’s limitless capacity to lie, hate, and threaten, all in the name of promoting a binary vision of the world, a vision of white superiority, Christian fundamentalism, and cultural censorship.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine that this successful prosecution means the end of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, or any other hate group. But I am glad, a bit triumphant, and proud that the moral code of my nation, under siege as never before since the Civil War, continues to raise up liberty and justice – for all.

Counting On It

One of the more confusing elements of the Jewish tradition is something called the counting of the omer. In the Book of Leviticus (23:10-11), it is commanded that the Israelites bring a sheaf or omer of the first harvest of their barley to the priest on the second day of Passover. The priest would then wave the barley offering before God – whatever that looked like – to symbolize the start of the harvest season.

This barley offering was part of the larger agricultural cycle in ancient Israel based on the lunar calendar. The barley harvest was the first of the crops in the year, marking the beginning of the agricultural cycle. The offering of the first fruits fifty days later was a way of acknowledging God’s role in the harvest and thanking God for the abundance of the land. The practice of bringing an omer of barley and then the first fruits as offerings continued until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Technically, according to the Torah, we count the days between the first grain offering of the year and the new meal offering given at the peak of the harvest season, 50 days later. The whole thing is simply a way to count down the harvest season. But over the years, as Shavuot morphed from a harvest festival to the holiday celebrating the day the Jews received the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jewish philosophers and commentators seized this calendrical link between Passover and Shavuot to push for a more robust religious underpinning.

For we who are not traditionally observant, this counting of the omer is an atavistic relic, a practice we are only barely aware of and in which we are utterly disinterested. It happens. Ritual can only inspire us when it connects us to a more profound truth about our life and how our Judaism defines it.

Lighting Hanukkah candles is a ritual that reminds us of the struggle between light and dark. Saying the kaddish opens our sense of loss and appreciation for those who have died. Coming to temple on the High Holy Days engages us in the joy of community and the sea of time that forever flows forward. Yom Kippur fasting reminds us of our mortality and our capacity to reflect on the deeper parts of our lives.

I could go on and on, bringing up rituals that continue to resonate within us. The fact is that there are also many, like counting the omer, which no longer has credible valence. As post-modern Reform Jews, we are not commanded to do anything because God says so. We do it because we are engaged in making meaning. We define our existence through the lens of Judaism. We are the inheritors of an ancient tradition that we renew as we evolve. Keeping kosher does not convey meaning for most of us, but supporting sustainable agriculture as a Jewish value does make a real impact.

Living as a Jew in a universe where God does not command us to follow 613 mitzvot requires us to decide the boundaries and the obligations of our faith and practice. It’s about constructing a spiritual life on a scaffolding we build together. This is the gift we hand down from one generation to the next: the boldness to think about our Jewishness in real-time, to do something not because someone said so but because it is meaningful and engaging, and life-affirming.

Counting the omer meant something to our ancestors and continues to mean something to traditional Jews today. But it does not speak to me today – at all. That isn’t sad. It’s not a sign of the slow erosion of Judaism. It speaks to how we evolve, define, and redefine the values and practices that most enhance our lives. Now that’s something to celebrate. That’s something to count on.

Pondering Pesach

Passover is a time traveler’s holiday. We skip over the surface of memory, constantly bouncing into the future, then back to the past, then into the present, over and over again. Our Passover journey through the spacetime continuum is a group venture, fellow explorers floating around a table.

And yet, the seder is also a profoundly personal pilgrimage. Each one of us has intimate recollections that push us back and forth through time. The same rituals that bind us together engage each one of us at the very core of our souls. That engagement, or lack thereof, determines the meaning of this experience.

This realization may be at the core of the harsh response to the wicked child, as described in the Haggadah. This child expresses a disconnect from the experience. They’re not interested in exploring it from their soul. They say, “What does this holiday, this journey through time and space, mean to you?” rather than acknowledging that it belongs to them, too. If you don’t immerse yourself in the happening and won’t own it, it’s all for naught. It’s not that the wicked child would be left behind in exile. Instead, it’s the wicked child’s decision. It’s not abandonment. To travel this path requires actual agency.

Over the course of two seders, I was with my parents and siblings on Highview Terrace in Middletown. I was there for the “let’s eat right after the Four Questions” moments. I was in Jerusalem in 1973 at a Yemenite seder, seeing rice on the table and freaking out. I journeyed to Pittsburgh, where I had at least one seder in my grandmother’s apartment – stifling hot, crowded, and noisy. I was in my own home, looking around the table, missing those who used to join us and are no longer present in body but certainly in spirit. I was astral projecting to see my grandchildren in their teens and twenties. I even saw the table without me. It wasn’t morbid – it’s just a part of Passover.

The Passover story is about transformation and change, about an ongoing struggle to wend our way around and through obstacles and impediments to find our true self and calling. It’s about how we, as Jews, have sought to make meaning through ritual and communal celebration. Most of all, Passover is an ongoing gift of memory. It is a reminder that time is the ocean in which we swim, following the waves as they ebb and flow, carrying us out to see and back to the shore over and over again.


Getting ready for Passover is not only an act; it’s a series of several acts. There are, of course, several lists online, because the Internet loves lists. They all pretty much boil down to the following:

Cleaning: In traditional homes, this means an aggressive, violent war fought against chametz using steel wool, blowtorches, boiling water, chemical solvents, and vacuum cleaners. It also requires severely beating rugs and pillows and cushions, etc. This is all done to make certain that there are leavened products or crumbs stuck in the couch, on the counters, in the bedrooms, and so forth. No corner of the house is exempt.

Shopping: It’s all about the “Kosher for Passover” labels. You cannot use open products in a kosher for Passover home. Everything from sponges to cleanser to detergent to dish soap to bar soap to spices… In other words, anything potentially “contaminated” by chametz cannot be used during the holiday. Milk and eggs should be bought before the holiday and don’t need certification. Yogurt, cream cheese, etc do require certification. It’s a Herculean task, and the expense is no light load!

Book buying: The right Haggadah is important. If you don’t like it, you feel like your seder is being held hostage by a book. Well, don’t let your celebration get bogged down by readings and songs you don’t know or don’t like. There are so many options now, at least 60 on Amazon! Call me if you need a hand. I can’t give a blanket opinion without knowing who’s coming to dinner…

Cooking: Cooking a beautiful Passover meal is a big part of the holiday. Don’t forget, we are to sit – no, loll around the table as if we were Roman aristocracy. That’s why we recline when we drink the wine – we are lords and ladies who are not in a hurry to get back to work. We are free, and no one is telling us what to do.

As the head chef for Passover, I like to serve traditional dishes; for us that includes matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, chopped liver, brisket, potatoes, and then desserts. I also add a few new things every year. I find that is a great source of ideas, as is

Prepping yourself. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the meal and the seating and the family issues that sometimes arise. And while that’s all real, so too is the underlying reason for us all to gather. We are retelling an ancient story of journeying from one place to another, from one state of being to another. We move from the constricting stranglehold of enslavement and oppression to the vast openness of freedom. We were once slaves – but no longer. However, there are still people in our world who cannot make the same claim, and their pain must lessen our loud shouts of joy. Solomon Burke sings, “None of us are free/When one of is chained/Then none of us are free.”

He’s right, of course. And how can we avoid thinking of the refugees in the world now, people struggling to find a safe place for themselves and their children and their parents? The HIAS Passover supplement includes these words: “Throughout our history, violence and persecution have driven the Jewish people to wander in search of a safe place to call home. We are a refugee people. At the Passover Seder, we gather to retell the story of our original wandering and the freedom we found. But we do not just retell the story. We are commanded to imagine ourselves as though we, personally, went forth from Egypt – to imagine the experience of being victimized because of who we are, of being enslaved, and of being freed. As we step into this historical experience, we cannot help but draw to mind the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection. Like our ancestors, today’s refugees experience displacement, uncertainty, lack of resources, and the complete disruption of their lives.”

How can we not include some of this in our seder? Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.

Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. We must support the struggle for democracy: in Israel, in Ukraine, in America. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.

Shabbat Shalom


Hello Yellow Brick Road

This weekend is the Temple Beth Avodah performance of Wizard of Oz. No, it’s not in Hebrew. No, we’re not doing it because L. Frank Baum was Jewish (he wasn’t).

We’re performing a musical because it’s a tradition that goes back decades. We continue to embrace that tradition because it pulls together congregants of different generations, all devoted to a lofty and challenging goal: to entertain from the stage. Anyone who’s ever been part of a TBA show – acting onstage, handling props, sewing costumes, wrangling little kids, helping with lights or painting sets, or doing makeup – anyone who’s had the honor will tell you that the experience changed their lives.

No one has gone on to an acting career after performing at TBA (though Amy Kaufman, a Dorothy from our prior Oz performance, is a well-established entertainment writer for the LA Times). But everyone will tell you about how many friends they made. They will describe how being cast or crew members for a temple play connected them to a profound sense of community and common cause. Whenever they walk into the temple, they will feel like they own the place; it’s their temple in a new and intimate way.

It’s been especially pleasing to perform Wizard of Oz. The story is beautiful and very evocative. In many ways, it explicates an archetypal experience of maturation and change through a young woman’s search for her true identity. Dorothy lives on a farm with elderly relatives. Her parents are nowhere to be found or mentioned. She has no friends other than her dog. Three hired hands on the Gale homestead serve as her protectors, less like friends and more like siblings. She seems lonely and needs more attention than she can get.

We feel her yearning and sadness, portrayed so empathically by our female lead, Sarah Wanger. She seeks a place of wholeness, where there are no troubles or angst, somewhere over the rainbow.

But over the rainbow is not a place of peace. In fact, far from it! There are witches and hostile trees and flying monkeys and scary castles; so much for troubles melting like lemon drops… It’s not until the end of her adventure that Dorothy discovers what she knew all along but wasn’t mature enough to understand: there’s no place like home. She has to take the hero’s journey to come out the other side, renewed. It’s still the same Kansas when she wakes up, but she’s not the same Dorothy.

A simple temple play brings us all on a well-trod path of drama, music, and laughter. And at the same time, it challenges us to take the complex journey of the hero, of departure, initiation, and return. How special it is to have loved ones and friends accompany us on the yellow brick road.

The Stakes

On May 14, 1948, as the last British troops were leaving Palestine, Jewish leaders declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The Declaration of Independence was read aloud by the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in Tel Aviv and was broadcasted to the world. The declaration proclaimed the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, recognized the historical connection of the Jewish people to the region and pledged to uphold democratic values and principles. Most significantly, the text reads, “The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The current challenge to Israel’s Supreme Court jeopardizes these lofty goals and the foundational rights of Israeli citizens. Because if the authority of the Supreme Court is scuttled, then the currently constituted coalition government will redefine what Israel was meant to be since the time of the founders – and even before them.

The promise that Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture” is at risk. That’s why I am supporting the hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators gathering in every Israeli city to demand the government cease and desist in this attempt to destroy democracy.

Reform temples could lose all funding currently guaranteed to ALL synagogues in Israel. Reform rabbis could lose all of their rabbinic authority. Jewish women who want to read Torah at the Western Wall on the women’s side could be arrested.

For the LGBTQ+ community in Israel, all rights for equal access and fair employment standards could be overturned. Their status and their safety could be dangerously tenuous.

Secular Israelis and non-Orthodox Jews could lose access to transportation on Shabbat. Seven-Eleven-style convenience stores and restaurants, and pharmacies that are currently open 24/7 could be forcibly closed on Shabbat.

The settler movement in Israel could use this lack of judicial oversight to continue its increasingly provocative and violent behavior toward Palestinians with impunity.

Most of all, the gutting of the Court’s authority stands to besmirch the image of the modern Jewish State. It causes a calamitous change in who and what Israel has represented since the beginning: the only true democracy in the Middle East. If the Court is lost, so too, then is democracy.

My take on this is from Israeli narratives, not my own. I arrived at my cause for concern via articles and news reports by those on Israel’s Left and Right. From The Times of Israel and Haaretz, and the Jerusalem Post. I have heard the anguish expressed by Israeli army reservists. Jet pilots. Professors. Cab drivers. People in their 20s. People in their 80s.

If we’ve learned anything over the decades since the Holocaust, it is that we need Israel as a bastion of freedom and safety for the Jewish people. We need Israel to continue to struggle with the real-time dilemma of statehood in the face of occupation. We need the Jewish State to proudly embrace the citizenry of Israel with all of its messy, demanding challenges. We, Jews of the Diaspora, need Israel to uphold the best values of progressive Jewish life as it has struggled to do since 1948.

To speak out for a democratic Israel is to uphold the Jewish State’s promise as signified by the Declaration of Independence. It is to declare oneself to be a true Zionist. What are the pro-democracy demonstrators holding at rally after rally throughout Israel? Israeli flags. Hundreds. Thousands of Israeli flags.

Winter Is Coming?

What a miserable snowfall tally we witnessed this winter! It’s hard to fully comprehend just how pathetic it’s been. All those meteorologists and local tv news reporters, desperately watching the maps, comparing different snowfall models to predict future storms, and all of it for naught.
It’s so sad to lose a cornerstone environmental marker, a regular life event that defined not just the season but also an attitude about life in New England. Whenever it snowed, everything had to change. School was canceled, offices were closed, and plans were scuttled. We were all forced to look out the window, chill out, and enjoy the stunning sight of snow cover. Time slowed down, and so did we.
With snowfall would always come the skis and the sleds and the skates. And then, of course, the hot chocolate, the hot toddies, and tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. What memories…
Certainly, snowstorms are not without peril and aggravation. Getting stuck in a storm on the road struggling to get home was always a frightening, exhausting experience. The relief of finally getting home, off the road, and pulling into the driveway was deep and gratifying.
And getting kids ready to go outside, stuffing them into snowsuits like making sausage, finding hats and gloves and scarves… not a lot of fun. But once the kids got outside, it was often a dream time. The requisite snowman, the attempt at a fort, and the snowball fight that would last until the youngest participant got smacked in the face with an icy mass are all templates of wintertime bliss. Even coming back into the house and stripping off the wet snow gear was beautiful! Chapped cheeks glowing, the warmth returning to fingers and toes: these are just a few of the joys of the snow.
I would be remiss were I to leave out the dissenting votes on wintertime snowfall. My mother hated the snow. She would no doubt be celebrating this climate change twist if she were alive today. But not me.
It is deeply problematic to witness the inexorable destructive power of climate change. The chickens have come home to roost. I have lost the snow.
I don’t know what the next winters of my life will look like, how cold it will get, what my garden will do. But I will do as Jews have always done: adapt. I will also lean into memories of another time, of deep snow, puffer coats, and boots. Since my heart surgeries, I don’t shovel snow anymore or use my snowblower. But I will recall the unique sense of accomplishment of a cleared driveway and sidewalks clean and salted. And I will, with irony, utter the words from Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.” I am still determining what it will look like, but arrive it will. I will engage in the Jewish practice of remembering what was and engaging in what is.

What If

“What if?”, is one of the most exciting questions in the human lexicon. “What if”, is the key to open the heavy door of  complacency and the status quo. “What if” gives permission to explore all the places we’re told to avoid. It’s the moment when Dorothy dares to look behind the curtain to see who the Wizard really is.

Asking questions is dangerous for those invested in not rocking the boat. “What if” dares to suppose that what you see is NOT what you get. And that can be the stuff of disruption and the harbinger of change and even revolution.

What if is foundational to science. One assumes that any experiment, complicated or grossly simple, begins with what if. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a multi-billion dollar project began when a few cosmologists got together with a few astrophysicists and a few astronomers and collectively asked, “What if? What if we could send a telescope into space, a million miles away from Earth, far enough to avoid light and heat and gravitational pull and scan the Universe? What if we discover findings we weren’t expecting?

JWST has found a trove of startling phenomena, some of which has changed everything we thought we knew about the Universe. Just recently, JWST has detected galaxies from very early in post Big Bang time that shouldn’t be there. They are huge, way bigger than anything that fits what the Universe was “supposed” to look like in the early formation era. The Pennsylvania State University’s Joel Leja, who took part in the study, calls them “universe breakers.”

“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,” Leja said in a statement. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.” That’s what happens when you mess with assumptions and ask, what if?

Pushing the envelope, looking just past the margins, wondering what’s on the other side, whether it’s dark or light, is a Jewish preoccupation. From Spinoza onward, we’ve asked, ”What if?” We’re not afraid to imagine alternate worlds and systems. Whether it’s the early Reformers of the 19th century who dared to ponder an alternate expression of Judaism (What if the Torah was a human document), the disaffected Jews of the 19th century who were profoundly troubled by the societies in which they lived (what if there were a radical alternative to the brutalty of capitalism), or the intellectual Jews who looked at the world and sought to explain it in a new way: what if human consciousness included the unconscious (Freud)? What if there was a dimension called spacetime that warped gravitational force and explained relativity (Einstein)?

We love messing with what is to explore what might be. It’s in our DNA. Of course there are Jews who fight this natural rebelliousness in favor of keeping the rules narrow and the doors to change locked up. But in the end, the urge will bubble up. The Women of the Wall will keep gathering on the plaza to the Western Wall, and ultra-Orthodox Jews will slap them and kick them and try to prevent them from praying. There is a law before the Knesset that will prohibit women from wearing a tallit in public under penalty of incarceration. But WOW will keep going back, asserting that they have the right to gather and pray and read from the Torah. What if, they will ask, if women were truly treated as equal to men?

Asking what if and then daring to reflect on the answer is how we keep going, how we grow and evolve. It’s mind altering for scientists who imagined that early galaxies would be small and diffuse. But they asked anyway. And now look what they’ve done! As astronomer Joel Leja said, “We’ve found something we never thought to ask the universe — and it happened way faster than I thought, but here we are.”

What if…? Women reading Torah at the Wall? Jewish life flourishing after the Holocaust? New Jewish traditions emerging? As Dr Leja said, “…here we are.”