Monthly Archives: May 2012

Here’s Looking at You

In our preschool every child gets to bring home a piece of posterboard with the assignment to decorate it, with the help of parents, with photos and colors and stickers. On Friday mornings the preschool gathers in the sanctuary for what we call ‘Superstar Shabbat.’  A few kids are chosen every week to share the poster about themselves with everyone else.  The ones who bring in their posters are called the superstars of the day.

The drill goes like this: I call the kids and their entourage to the bimah individually.  I ask them about the various pictures on their poster, their favorite colors, etc.  It’s always great fun and it’s a highly anticipated event.  Some of the kids are very shy; others are ready to lead the entire event.

Today there were 3 superstars.  One was very shy, one was comfortable, and one was – well, let me tell you what happened. I called Sarah [not her real name] to the bimah.  As I surveyed her superstar poster I noticed that Sarah had placed in the most prominent position, a photo of her standing with a Disney Cinderella model.  I said to Sarah, “Who’s the beautiful princess in the picture?”  Without hesitation she said, “That’s me!”

Every adult in the sanctuary laughed.  It was a priceless Art Linkletter, “Kids Say the Darndest Things” moment.  I thought to myself, “You go, Sarah!  You are the princess!  Forget the blonde model next to you.  You’re the shining superstar!”

Somehow the kind of feeling Sarah has, that she is a beautiful princess, gets lost to so many of us as we get older.  To know adolescent girls is to know a litany of adjectives, pejorative and so sad, that they use to describe themselves: fat, pimply, gross, awkward, hairy, disgusting, and so forth.  Where does the confidence of a princess go? Men also have moments when as boys we see ourselves as strong, able-bodied jocks or as princes, only to fall victim to our own failing self-confidence. 

In the Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, from Numbers, 12 spies go out to scout the land of Israel.  Ten come back and say that giants lived in the land of milk and honey.  “When we saw them we felt like grasshoppers in comparison to them.”

God gets really angry with these guys.  Why, God wonders, don’t the 10 spies feel more confident?  Why don’t they say to each other, “Hey the inhabitants of the land of Israel are bigger than we are, but God’s sending us in there.  And if God says it’s ok, then we have to have the faith that it will be ok.”

Sarah looks in the mirror and sees a princess.  The spies look in the mirror and grasshoppers looks back.  The mirror isn’t broken.  It’s all about what’s inside the person who’s looking in the mirror.  We are so blessed with so much.  We have this gift of neshama: breath and soul.  Why do we all squander it on self-doubt and self-abnegation?  To see our beauty when we look in the mirror, all of us creations of God, that is a test of faith and confidence. 

I am so grateful for Sarah’s radiance this Shabbat.  I’m going to go look in the mirror now.  I won’t be expecting George Clooney smiling back.  But I will see a man blessed with so much naches. I will see a bald, bearded, big guy who’s so happy to be alive.  Now it’s your turn.  Who do you see?




Roger Sterling, one of the central characters of Madmen, turns to Don Draper, the main character and one of his partners in the ad firm they work for and co-own. Sterling I think is around 60 and Draper just turned 40. It is 1965, and all kinds of things are going on for them professionally and personally. And of course it’s the beginning of the Vietnam War and the blossoming of the civil rights movement. Sterling is a product of the WWII era, a roué and a bon vivant. If it were up to him, nothing would change: the moneyed class would continue to rule the board rooms and the bed rooms. The Jews, the blacks, and the ‘everyone -who -isn’t –rich- white and privileged’, would continue to feed on the scraps left behind by him and his exclusive team.
Don Draper, a Korean War vet straddles Sterling’s world and the Kulturkampf of the 60s. He’s old fashioned, yet realizes the world is surely changing. A part of him loves the drinking and the high life of the ad exec, yet he also sees it for what it truly is: a decadent life of excess.
After a particularly tough experience at the hands of a younger colleague of theirs, Roger turns to Don and asks him, “When are things going to get back to normal around here?” Don rolls his eyes and the episode ends. We the viewers know the answer: things aren’t going to be returning to normal. Ever. Their world is forever in flux.
There is no “normal” anymore. The myth of normal, a time when everything was better and calmer and easier is an old dream. In fact, it’s historically a messianic ideal. Gershom Sholem, the 20th century master of Jewish mysticism studies, called this yearning for the old days ‘restorative messianism.’ This belief suggests that when the Messiah comes the world will return to the glorious past. But what is the past for a downtrodden people? What’s it worth for a woman or an African American or a poor, underprivileged person? One cannot, in the words of Firesign Theatre, go “forward into the past.”
There is no normal anymore. Things are not going to get easier. Things are not going to get less complicated. Things are not going to quiet down. We are all on an E ticket ride, moving ever faster as we live ever longer. Our restorative messianic ideal will forever be a dream. Our technology has changed so much around us. Our compassion and progressive spirit have brought millions of people out of the chains of the past to a present sense of openness and freedom. When President Obama finally spoke in support of gay marriage, I thought it one of the most presidential of announcements he’s ever made. It was not a statement from the past. It could never have been made from inside the past.
We live in a world of change. And even as we Reform Jews revere our ancestors and their lives, we do not and cannot glorify the past. We learn from the past. We admire various things of the past. But we’re right here, right now. Steve Miller once sang, “Time keeps on slipping into the future.” That’s the stream to follow.
There is no normal anymore. That’s nothing to be sad about. It’s something to acknowledge. And celebrate.
Shabbat Shalom

I’m a Believer – or Not

Teresa MacBain is, or at least, was, a Methodist minister in Tallahassee, Florida, at Lake Jackson United Methodist Church.  At some point she began questioning her faith in God.  She wondered how to reconcile the existence of God and evil. The stories of divine intervention and resurrection confused her. “She says she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.  For years, MacBain set her concerns aside. But when she became a Methodist minister nine years ago, she started asking sharper questions. She thought they’d make her faith stronger.” [NPR, April 30]

Her questions did not lead her to faith-restoring insight.  In fact, as her questions grew more systemic, her faith shrank.  Last month on the way to Sunday services she realized that she had crossed a line: MacBain decided that she was an atheist.  She actually didn’t let anyone else know her decision – it was her secret for a while, until she attended an Atheist convention – yes, there are atheist conventions.  At that convention she publicly declared that she was an atheist too.

The news story: minister comes out as atheist, was prominent in Tallahassee media. MacBain never imagined the response.  Lots of hate mail came her way. Her congregation literally locked her out of the church. Her husband, a police officer, had to go in and pick up her things, which were already packed into boxes.

A crisis of faith, a dark night of the soul, can be shattering.  To lose faith in God can feel profoundly alienating; it can change the warp and woof of the universe.  Sometimes it’s a permanent condition.  Other times it’s indicative of a continual dialectical tension.

For Jews, the God question is enormous.  It is part of our faith to question our faith.  In fact the more questions we ask the more we enter into a deep and thoughtful relationship to the idea of God.  Our relationship to the idea may lead us into a personal relationship with God.  Or it may lead us to reject God.  The point is not to believe for believing’s sake.  The point is to think about God, to challenge ourselves to dig deep and face what we define as the truth of our faith.

I wondered after I heard Teresa MacBain interviewed on NPR; what would happen if I went to an atheist convention somewhere in Boston and then spoke to a local reporter about how I had decided that I was an atheist?  How would my life change?  I imagined coming to the temple on Monday morning.  Would my stuff be in boxes on the curb?  Would the lock be changed on my office door?  Would I receive hate mail?

In fact, I think if I’d been on tv declaring that I was an atheist, when I came in the next morning, folks would say good morning. “Hey!” they’d continue, “I saw you on tv!”  And that would be the extent of the furor.  Sure, some folks would be upset.  A few folks would write angry emails to the Jewish Advocate, no doubt.  But truthfully, for Jews, the whole atheist-agnostic-believer continuum is a matter of private choice, even for Orthodox Jews.  If you live a life of being a mensch, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of giving tzedakah, your theology is of secondary importance.

What we believe and how we believe is an ongoing complex of age and health and experience.  The point is to be involved in the discussion.  It is not following some script – it is following one’s heart.  How lucky to be Jewish, to be able to speak out loud of one’s doubt and not get castigated for it.  To believe or not to believe in God is not simply a statement.  It’s an ongoing struggle for truth.  It’s a living dynamic filled with tears and pain and exaltation and celebration.  No one’s getting locked out the temple for that.