Monthly Archives: February 2017

Only in Israel

The first time one comes to Israel, the star is the country itself. The vastness of the wilderness terrain. The extraordinary wonders of a huge crater gouged into the south of Israel by moving tectonic plates, an extinct ocean and rushing rivers. The clear, fresh waters of the Ein Gedi spring which is less than 10 miles from the Dead Sea, the saltiest water in the lowest point on earth. The Western Wall. Funky, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. The astonishingly gorgeous Bahai Gardens in Haifa.

Of course the list goes on and on; I could count out another ten sites in a second. On the 4th or fifth visit, however, the the scenery begins to fade out and the encounters with the people emerge. Their stories, their opinions, their worldview, are unique and prodigious.

I regularly thank my best Hebrew teacher, Mr Max Kleiman, of blessed memory, who taught me how to read and speak the language. Because of him and all of my subsequent Hebrew instructors, I can actually engage on an intimate level with the people of this country, most of whom are chomping at the bit to share their opinions, some before even being asked.

I took a cab to dinner two nights ago and the driver wanted to know where I was from. He immediately yelled, “What are you Americans doing? What kind of a meshugganeh president did you choose? America will be like Italy with Berlusconi!” On the way back to the hotel another driver wanted to shake my hand. “Thank God, America finally has a president who loves Israel.” When I sheepishly mentioned that I did not vote for him, he couldn’t believe it. “I should make you pay me twice! Once for the fare, once for Obama!”

That’s the way it is here. Everything is turned up to high volume. Every comment inspires a reaction: sometimes a slap on the back and a “Kol hakavod!” (“Right on, man!”); sometimes a look of horror and a  “Hishtagata?!” (Have you lost your mind?”).

It’s Isabela, our waitress in a fabulous hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Tel Aviv Carmel Market. I order lunch and she looks at me apologetically. “Please can you speak in English? I don’t know Hebrew.” It turns out that she’s from Barcelona and just beginning to go to an Ulpan for basic Hebrew instruction. She is adorable and hapless…

There’s league night at the bowling alley in Haifa, to which we take our kids and their Israeli high school counterparts. Many of the teams are composed of men in their late 50s and 60s. I imagine their lives and the number of times they may have been ordered to enter combat. And just as I pluck up the courage to ask them some kind of a leading question about the complexity of life in Israel, they look over at me and the kids, and… immediately ask the woman at the desk to put up a mechitza — yes, a curtained barrier between us and the abutting league lane.

I can’t help but respond. “Ad k’dei kach?” (“Seriously?”) “Ken adoni. Ad k’dei kach!” (“Heck ya I’m serious.”) He comes over later to explain that bowling is like dancing and everyone takes a turn and so forth. At this point I’m wishing I wasn’t so fluent… And I’m brushing up against the issue of boundaries that is such a hot issue in a little country, whether in a bowling alley in Haifa or the Green Line between Israel and the occupied territories. Never has the memory of the simple act of  drawing a line between siblings in the back seat of a car taken on such depth and emotion.

There’s Omar and Yosef, 2 Arab brothers who own  a store inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. I’ve been there before and they greet me like a long lost brother, immediately ordering coffee and tea. They invite the kids in and treat them with a full display of hospitality and salesmanship. The brave kids do the bartering game, and Omar graciously barters back. It’s all in fun. We spend almost two hours with them as they regale us with stories of their store and their lives. Meanwhile our Israeli guide sits apart, scowling. I ask him what’s wrong. “These Arabs are just using you. As soon as you walk away they’ll laugh at you and how they ripped you off.” I’m surprised by his animosity. He doesn’t know these men or their store. But he’s already so sure he understands them and their story.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe these men are as cold and cynical as he suggests they are. Only, I am not a fool. I know the difference between sarcastic glad-handing, and the genuine pleasure of humans connecting. The kids come up to me. “Rabbi. Are these guys Arabs?” “Of course! This is the Arab Market!” “They’re so nice! We didn’t know that Arabs would be nice.” To achieve this sentiment, it was worth every shekel spent.

I have a hundred more examples, a thousand. Joyful encounters. Puzzling encounters. Maybe it’s like this when you go back to the same place time after time. But in my heart of hearts, I doubt it. This IS my place. I may not live here, but my DNA connects me. These are my people: the new immigrant from Spain, our Moslem bus driver, the kibbutznik who filled a paper cup with organic manure to prove it didn’t smell, the bowler and his mechitza… all mine.

We’re leaving tomorrow night and I’m excited to get home. But I will truly miss this sprawling 24/7/365 drama played out with such heart and intensity. I can’t wait to come home again.

Darwin and the Jews

I’m not sure the first time I heard that there was a serious conflict between science and religion. But I do remember one day in 5th grade when our rabbi mentioned the subject in Hebrew School. “The challenge is to keep your faith strong while you are studying evolution.”

It has never felt spiritually or intellectually challenging to believe passionately in both science and faith. The notion that science and religion are somehow diametrically opposed does not make any sense to me.  Pursuing truth occurs on all different planes of being.

The beauty of our tradition is that it does not demand that we silently swallow large doses of dogma. We’re supposed to ask questions. We’re supposed to challenge the status quo. Torah commentary begins with questions. We read our Bible stories as kids, but too often we don’t build the bridge from tales and myth to Jewish belief and practice. We don’t develop a sophisticated understanding of how to read Torah as adults. By age five we hear that Eve came from Adam’s rib; by age eight we know there’s no way that’s true. But we haven’t explicitly said to our 4th graders and our older students, “The Torah is mythos, stories we’ve told to our generations about the world and our ancestors and God.” Of course the book of Genesis isn’t scientific fact. It’s not meant to be fact! It’s all about imagery and metaphor and poetry. It’s about an idealized world and an idealized God still in development in the eyes of our earliest Jewish ancestors. A story doesn’t need to be true to be real…

The 207th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth is coming up on Sunday, Feb. 12. And I plan to celebrate by proclaiming his genius and his theological wrestling. Nothing about Darwin threatens Judaism. We live in a world of hard science and deep soulful spirituality. We need both to understand the world.

Science and religion are human endeavors to face the mysterious Universe in which we live. That essential question, “Why am I here?” can be answered by science and religion without contradiction or conflict. Both can be used to shed light on the unknown. Both can become weapons of intolerance and hatred.

The choice is ours: to honor our traditions and to honor the truest trajectory of science, or to scoff and belittle one at the expense of the other. We need Genesis and Darwin, cosmology and kabbalah, evolution and the Eternal.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin. Shabbat Shalom.


I’m From Laniakea, and So Are You

Every one of us lives in this vast Universe dwarfed by an infinitude of knowledge and mystery. There is so much we don’t know, and so much we don’t understand. Alexander the Great supposedly wept because there were no more worlds left for him to conquer. We weep because the world is not conquerable – there is too much we will never know.

We are finite and small and limited. Einstein redefined time and space and gravity, but give him two knitting needles and some yarn, and he’s helpless. Give Joe Lovano a tenor sax, and he will shock you with his dynamic virtuosity. Ask him to define an aggadic Midrash, and he will ask you to hum a few bars…

In other words, we know only the most infinitesimal bit about the world. When I do the New York Times Saturday crossword – which I can NEVER complete without my wife – I am acutely aware of this truism. No matter how many things I Google, there are a thousand more unknowns that fly past me at the speed of light, and all I can do is bravely smile and wonder how I didn’t know what just blew by me.

From time to time I learn something that I didn’t even know I didn’t know, something really big and life altering. For instance, I recently learned that there were no standardized times or time zones anywhere in the world until the late 1800s. The increasingly large, complex and rich railroads demanded some sort of synchronization so that when it was 10 am at Penn Station, it was 10 am at South Station.

My understanding of time dramatically changed when I learned about the establishment of time zones. A few new facts and the world looks different. Amazing…

Below is a piece from an article in last December’s Scientific American. I reprint it here for you to read because it is so mind-blowing. Once you read it, you’ll never be the same…

Imagine visiting a far distant galaxy and addressing a postcard to your loved ones back home. You might begin with your house on your street in your hometown, somewhere on Earth, the third planet from our sun. From there the address could list the sun’s location in the Orion Spur, a segment of a spiral arm in the Milky Way’s suburbs, followed by the Milky Way’s residence in the Local Group, a gathering of more than 50 nearby galaxies spanning some seven million light-years of space. The Local Group, in turn, exists at the outskirts of the Virgo Cluster, a 50-million-light-year-distant cluster of more than 1,000 galaxies that is itself a small part of the Local Supercluster, a collection of hundreds of galaxy groups sprawled across more than 100 million light-years. Such superclusters are believed to be the biggest components of the universe’s largest-scale structures, forming great filaments and sheets of galaxies surrounding voids where scarcely any galaxies exist at all.

Until recently, the Local Supercluster would have marked the end of your cosmic address. Beyond this scale, it was thought, further directions would become meaningless as the boundary between the crisp, supercluster-laced structure of galactic sheets and voids gave way to a homogeneous realm of the universe with no larger discernible features. But in 2014 one of us (Tully) led a team that discovered we are part of a structure so immense that it shattered this view. The Local Supercluster, it turns out, is but one lobe of a much larger supercluster, a collection of 100,000 large galaxies stretching across 400 million light-years. The team that discovered this gargantuan supercluster named it Laniakea-Hawaiian for “immeasurable heaven”-in honor of the early Polynesians who navigated the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean by the stars. The Milky Way sits far from Laniakea’s center, in its outermost hinterlands.

Laniakea is more than just a new line on our cosmic address. By studying the architecture and dynamics of this immense structure, we can learn more about the universe’s past and future. Charting its constituent galaxies and how they behave can help us better understand how galaxies form and grow while telling us more about the nature of dark matter-the invisible substance that astronomers believe accounts for about 80 percent of the stuff in the universe.

Does this blow your mind?? Read the phrases like “galactic sheets,” or “great filaments,” or read that the Universe is 80 percent dark matter. What? Laniakea? A collection of 100,000 galaxies “stretching across 400 million light years”?

Why do I get so excited about this stuff? It illustrates that we live in an extraordinary place. The sheer size of Laniakea dwarfs anything I can imagine. That we can find ourselves even in the middle of this gigantic system is remarkable.

We are a part of something so vast, so beyond comprehension. And we didn’t even know it! I am so thankful to have learned this, to have my home recontextualized to include the utter vastness of space.

In an uneasy time of constriction and anxiety, I hope this story will provide you with some spiritually uplifting language and images. It’s thrilling to still feel awe and wonder.


Shabbat Shalom.