Monthly Archives: December 2011

Courage is not a Miracle, It’s a Choice

I know we talk the miracle of Hanukkah story. You know, the cruise of oil that contained only enough oil for one day lasted eight days? Well, as you may also know, the historicity of this miracle is questionable. There is obviously no ‘proof’, no hard core evidence that supports this story. This is ok, because the story, true or not, reminds us of the need for perseverance, for having faith in God even when the odds are all against us. It is actually the quintessential Jewish story of believing in God’s presence in the darkest of places: Jerusalem in 148BCE, Mainz in 1096, Barcelona in 1492, Kishinev in 1903, Berlin in 1933: these places and a thousand thousand more were scenes when the end felt very close. That we keep going forward, that we survive to rise to greater heights, is like a cruise of oil for one night only that cannot be extinguished.
Tonight as Shabbes comes I’m thinking about another story. Instead of recalling the miracle of the oil, I’d rather focus on the human effort behind our survival. Because as much hope and courage as we get from God’s presence, it is individual Jews and their prodigious efforts that enable us to ultimately triumph. It is Jews who have stated to the world, in the words of Tom Petty, who, while not Jewish, does state a very Jewish ethic: Well I won’t back down, No I won’t back down/ You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down./ I’m gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around/and I’ll keep this world from draggin me down/ and I won’t back down.
There’s no miracle here, just hard work and faith that the future will be better than the present. The courage to go on comes from the thrum of life that God plants within us, but that we must tune into it in order to hear the sounds of freedom that are so inspiring. It’s that simple. And that hard. Maybe it’s like football: God calls the play but we execute it.
Enjoy Hanukkah and Shabbat. Listen for the call and get in there and play!
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,


Prayer Critic

Last week we exhibited the artwork of three congregants. Either through subtle genius (Carol Miller) and/or the guiding hand of the Holy One, each artist’s work exists in its own rarified space. Howard Fineman works in photography: paper. Bette Ann Libby works in mosaic and sculpture: clay. Iris Sonnenschein works in quilts and tapestries: cloth. Paper, clay, and cloth. Three absolutely different media. If you mush them together you get a mess. But if you watch how our artists work with their chosen substances of expression, you get to see profound things happen; things like art.
What makes art good art is, of course, the foundational kernel of art criticism. Men and women have, for centuries, relied upon the judgment of others to help them decide a) whether or not they should see a particular play or go to a particular exhibit, etc., or b) once they’ve seen a particular play or exhibit, what exactly they saw.
Sometimes criticism is vital. There ARE complicated pieces of art or films that are more fully appreciated when seen through the prism of a scholar/educated observer. I truly benefit from the criticism of Roger Ebert, for instance. He understands every aspect of filmmaking and therefore has a more complete sense of how editing moves a film along. And it’s true that if he writes a negative review of a movie, I will definitely not go to the cinema to see it. Maybe a glance when it comes on tv, but I won’t spend theater money. Ebert, like any great critic, is a mentor, a teacher.
I also like good art criticism because I never learned anything in college or rabbinic school about art. At all. It’s a gaping hole in my education, so I need a good guide to help me contextualize it . What are all of those objects doing on the canvas in Renaissance painting? When Jackson Pollock painted Blue Poles, was he primarily composing or was he feeling? Do abstract artists know what it is they are going to create? Did John Coltrane hear a solo in his head before he played it?
I am all in favor of the critic as Seeing Eye dog, as canary in the coal mine of culture. The critic is the priest, the intermediary between the art and the beholder/listener. I’ve wondered about this model for contemporary praying. Sure in the old days we had priests who were our intercessors. But maybe it’d be nice to have a prayer critic or coach – and I include myself as a person who could benefit. Where to focus our words, how to use meditation in our prayers, what some other models of prayer may look like?
Our relationship to and with God can be so deeply intimate. But if we don’t think about that relationship, if we don’t nurture it, explore its various dimensions, then it remains superficial and unsatisfying. We can better define and nurture our spiritual lives, but not alone. The more we can learn about our relationship to God, the more deeply powerful prayer becomes. Perhaps just by asking each other a question or two about how we pray – or don’t pray – we can shake loose some perspective that we haven’t had before. Not critiquing prayer styles, or absence of prayer styles, but encouraging with words of respect and curiosity. I don’t know how we might accomplish this, but it occurs to me that sacred people already have the tools: consciousness, empathy, tradition, knowledge.
In fact if we think of the art of prayer, it may give us the courage to mold our prayers like clay, to stitch together our prayers like fabric, to compose our prayers like a photo. We become the critic and the artist all at once.
Shabbat Shalom

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My Own Domain

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