Monthly Archives: January 2020

What’s It Worth To You?

Have you ever asked someone for a piece of information, and their answer is, “What’s it worth to you?” It’s a flippant, provocative response. Sometimes – perhaps, most of the time, it’s meant to be funny and sarcastic. But sometimes it’s a real question. Sometimes the information being sought is, in fact, a tradable commodity. Perhaps it is delicate, potentially damaging evidence that gives an entry point into someone else’s secret life.

What is knowledge worth? And: what’s worth knowing? These questions are rhetorical. There is no way to assign value to knowledge. In a world where analytics is considered a crucial tool to measure worth and success, knowledge is itself, unquantifiable.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote, “Judaism is a culture of knowledge, in which learning and teaching, cogitation and reflection, intellectual effort and theoretical pursuit, are esteemed and elevated to the highest ranks of its precepts.”

The most elevated form of learning in Jewish tradition is called “Torah lishmah.” The best standard translation is “Torah study for its own sake.” To open one’s heart and mind to the process of inquiry, to develop a sense of curiosity and exploration – these are considered genuinely praiseworthy.

Why is pursuing knowledge for its own sake, upheld with such reverence? Why does Judaism embrace the pursuit of the mind so unabashedly, so lovingly? Perhaps because it offers us an escape from the world of things. It asserts that there is more to life than rules and obligations. It tells us that there will always be a place where one can be free to learn and pursue beauty and truth. This doesn’t negate our obligations to the world; Torah lishmah is not about escaping to an ashram or retreating to a cave or a monastery. Our tradition declares that we have both endless obligations (mitzvot) and aspirational goals related to achieve. How often are we reminded that we must perform acts of social justice because we know what it was like to be enslaved?

But everything is not – cannot – be transactional. The life of the mind, the pursuit of learning for its own sake, is a sacred mission. The world of intellectual curiosity is infinite, an ever-expanding territory of knowledge.

Why study the origins of the Universe? Why does it matter when the Big Bang occurred? Why travel in space? Why explore the deepest depths of the ocean? Why study a page of the Talmud every day for seven years? Why read fiction? What’s it worth to you?

It’s all Torah lishmah. Don’t try to explain going to the moon by creating a narrative that we did it because we wanted to learn many things that would be useful on earth. Tang tastes good, but it wasn’t the motivation for a moon shot. Of course, there were military and technological innovations and applications that were by-products of the moon missions.

But truly, we did it because we could. Because we’ve wondered what that object in the sky was all about since our earliest ancestors stood on two feet and pointed at the sky. It’s Torah lishmah.

In 1943, Rabbi Leo Baeck was deported from Berlin to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. There he was put to hard physical labor on a garbage cart. Witnesses remembered watching him and another prisoner pushing the refuse on a wagon, all the while engaging in a discussion of Jewish tradition and philosophy. It’s Torah lishmah.

In pursuing the life of the mind, we extend ourselves beyond three dimensions. We engage in an infinite Universe of possibilities, of reflection and joy, of laughter and tears. It’s all there to taste, to engage. It’s Torah lishmah.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Falling

Falling is all over the English language. Falling down on the job. Falling in love. Falling out of love. Falling for a scam.

The truth is, nobody falls on purpose. We jump on purpose. We hop, dive, and roll on purpose. But nobody says, “Now I’m going to fall down.”

The older we get, the more fragile our bodies are when they become objects hurtling through space. If we slip and break a leg or a hip or sustain a concussion, we go to the hospital for surgery. And then all hell can break loose. For a variety of reasons, some known and others not so much, it takes older folks longer to find their way out of the haze of the post-op period. And for a variety of reasons, some known and others, not so much, older adults die from falling and breaking a hip or a shoulder.

We’re just so vulnerable. On ice. On the beach. On surfaces, hard, medium, or soft. We’re in a perpetual state of war against gravity. Each and every one of us is a Leaning Tower of Pisa come alive, precariously perched on the surface of this globe.

Whenever we fall, regardless of age, we get so embarrassed. We apologize profusely for being clumsy, for not looking out for the cat curled on the floor, or for failing to notice the shoes by the door. We fall. And it’s as if we’ve done something terribly wrong, as if we’ve breached some ethical firewall. Which is crazy, because frankly, it’s a bit miraculous that we’re not constantly toppling over…

Falling is a natural response to gravity, a force with which we must reckon. We simply have no dominion over it. Think for a moment about the terminology used for launching rockets into space. We say we must “escape” gravity. We are hostages to gravity. We are Newton’s apple.

Christian theologians call the moment when Adam takes a big bite out of whatever fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge, the Fall. Capital F. Pulled down by the gravity of sin, these theologians say that we are a ruined, pathetic, irredeemable bag of bones. The only way to recover from this state of sin is through baptism and/or accepting Jesus as the son of God whose death is the sacrifice that raises them up, defying the gravity of sin.

In Jewish theology, Adam and Eve’s sin is understood as a deadly sin. They knew better, yet they were drawn by the force of sin to do the worst thing they could possibly imagine. The rabbis don’t spend so much time criticizing Adam and Eve. They mostly sadly shake their heads and reiterate just how badly Adam and Eve messed up. The first man and woman ruined the possibility of human perfection and immortality.

The Adam and Eve narrative can be strangely reassuring. If the first man and woman failed, if they were drawn into the orbit of sin, if they were so imperfect, then we must acknowledge that we, too are imperfect. It’s never going to be perfect. We just have to try harder to set our own orbit around sin at a safer distance.

Sometimes we fall on our faces. Sometimes we fall in love. What a hopelessly romantic image: that love creates a force so strong and ineluctable that all we can do is give in. Sometimes we regret that fall and the resultant pain. Other times… not so much. But we must all surrender to the gravity of the heart.

When one Googles the phrase “learn to fall,” the number of hits is over 78 million. Many of those websites suggest:

  • Stay Bent Over. Crouch down if you feel yourself losing your balance. You won’t have as far to fall. A crouch enables you to roll and protect yourself.
  • Keep Arms & Knees Bent. Fall with bent elbows and bent knees. It shortens the distance and saves broken wrists and elbows.
  • Land on Big Muscles. Land on your butt, the muscles of your back, or your thighs. Don’t catch yourself with your hands when you fall. Instead, roll and try to land on the meaty parts.
  • Keep Falling. Relax your body rather than stiffening up. Roll up into a ball. Keep the rolling going. Spread the impact out. The more you roll with the fall, the safer.
  • Protect Your Head. If you are falling forward, turn your head to the side. Roll to that side. Avoid a face plant. If you are falling backward, tuck your chin to your chest, roll, and try to land on your thighs and butt.

How can anyone think so fast while falling? How can we even remember these rules? Yes, it’s all logical. And gravity is a rational force; at least it seems to be logical. But how we fall is far from logical.

We all fall down. Gravity will always triumph. Finitude is assured. In the meantime, as rule #4 suggests: just keep rolling. “The more you roll with the fall, the safer.” The interesting part isn’t that we fall down; we all do. It’s how we get back up that ultimately defines us. It’s not always easy to get back up. And we often need help to do so. Until such time as the final fall comes around – and it will – keep rolling.

Ben Bag Bag

There’s a famous saying in Perkei Avot – The Ethics of Our Ancestors – attributed to a rabbi named Ben Bag Bag. We know nothing about him. There’s no bio, no way to trace his roots. We can reasonably assume that he lived in the land of Israel during the first century CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Ben Bag Bag is quoted just once in the entire corpus of Jewish text. Yet his teaching, his few words of wisdom, are surely repeated several times a day and inferred in every place where Torah is studied. Not too shabby. Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over and turn it over again because everything is inside of it. Look into it; become old and gray inside of it. Don’t back away from it – there’s nothing so satisfying.”

This multi-valenced teaching is a favorite of mine. It boldly defines what continues to be a fundamental tenet in Jewish learning.  Torah study is available to all of us. It isn’t the exclusive domain of Torah scholars or erudite academicians. We are all invited into the palace of study.

Ben Bag Bag is not issuing a gentle bromide here. The Hebrew word for “turn it over,” hafoch, is written in the second person imperative. He is urging us to jump in with metaphorical shirtsleeves rolled up, to grab this learning enthusiastically and shake it up.

Hafoch is not a gentle word. “Turn it over” is not dramatic enough to portray the deeper meaning of the word. It would be more akin to shaking a snow globe and looking at it from every angle. The more significant point here is that one must actively engage, fearlessly entering the text without considering it too delicate or fragile.

In fact, the Torah teaches us this very thing in Deuteronomy 30: Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

There is no such thing as a stupid Torah question. There is no censorship, no holding back. Anything goes in Torah study. Go for it, Ben Bag Bag says. It’s your Torah.

Ben Bag Bag teaches us that the Torah study imperative is not transitory. It is a life long relationship. Stick with it!, urges Ben Bag Bag; “Become old and grey inside of it.” The thirst for Jewish knowledge is never quenched. It is an ever-present phenomenon. There is no age limit.

Sometimes people suggest that coming to Torah study on a Sunday morning sounds interesting, but… “I don’t know enough,” or, “I don’t know any Hebrew,” or “I’ve never done anything like it.” Ben Bag Bag would say, “Don’t back away,” that is, don’t worry about what you know or don’t know! Just come in! It just feels good; it feels right.

One could extrapolate from this famous maxim in Pirkei Avot to simply say that learning for learning’s sake is so good for you. It’s the continual exploration of the Universe in which we live. It’s recognizing the infinite possibilities of human knowledge and the reach for more. It’s the way we express our human curiosity, to boldly go where we haven’t been before.

The most profound truth of the Torah is its open invitation to hold it up to the light and deconstruct, then reconstruct it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that goes together and then morphs into a new shape. So go learn: a Torah class, or an adult learning class or a Newton Community class or read a good book. Just keep turning it over and over. The palace of wisdom is an excellent place to become old and gray.

We'll Never Be Royals

I’ve never felt myself to be at a disadvantage, not knowing anything about the royal family. Generally speaking, the file cabinets in my head – or should I say the folders in my database – are arranged as follows: general knowledge, trivia knowledge, Jewish knowledge, cooking expertise, jazz knowledge – and then miscellanea. There is no data entry about who’s married to whom in the House of Windsor. 

Yet… having said all that, I do love watching The Crown, a Netflix series that I find utterly captivating. If you’re one of the last 500 people who haven’t watched it yet, get to it! The plot revolves around Queen Elizabeth II, from her childhood to the present day. It is genuinely captivating, filled with drama and intrigue and more than a little humor. In the end, of course, it’s a TV series, not a documentary. It’s historically accurate – most of the time. Like all docu-drama, there’s plenty of imagined conversations and spiced up dialogue and additional color for the sake of a show that runs an hour at a clip. It’s only a TV show. 

A viewer of The Crown, who is not a royal family groupie, may have nonetheless raised an eyebrow upon hearing that a British royal, Prince Harry and his American, divorcee, wife of color Meghan Markel, were calling a royal time out, stepping away from any official duties as royalty. I admit to pausing as the story played out on NPR. I haven’t read anything about it.

I think Harry has red hair and a child named Archie. I’ve never seen the beautiful Meghan Markel in a movie or TV show. However, I love their courage and their élan. After all the catty British tabloid articles, some racist in nature, defaming Meghan Markel, and then all the ridiculous empty rituals and the intense pressure of being a royal, they bagged it. 

When does tradition for tradition’s sake go into an entropic death spiral? When ritual becomes a Monty Python skit, when various conventions become foolish and unnecessary, well then, why bother? This is where Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s decision gets interesting to a nice Jewish boy like me. 

When the fundamentals of a strict culture or tradition begin to chafe, something’s got to give. Humans don’t do well over the long haul when a system blocks access to the process of evolution. Daring to change brings out the best and the worst in people. It’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and it’s the guillotine. 

 In the 18th century, some Jews experienced the hegemony of a strict, unbending system of theology and sociology to be stultifying and opaque. They experienced Jewish Law as it was practiced from the Middle Ages to be empty. It’s not like they wanted Judaism to disappear (to be honest, a few did want that to happen, but that’s a different article…); they just wanted to reinterpret it. They wanted to use a different lens through which to view Jewish life and ritual and obligation. Once that started to happen, it changed everything. One response was Hasidism. Another was Reform Judaism. 

We Reform Jews are the inheritors of a courageous decision to step back from the assumption that we must observe the same laws and traditions in the same way they have always been practiced. Our current practices are fluid, morphing over time and experience. This is a good thing – and sometimes, not so good.

It seems that in our rush to change, to adapt, we sometimes drop the ball. We’ve surrendered certain values that have defined us over time. Shabbat, the sacred presence of God, the holy dimensions of Jewish life as an ever-present part of our worldview – these things have been compromised or completely lost. 

The fact is, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Humpty Dumpty is broken. Period. It may well be that the decision Prince Harry has made will be the dramatic act that poked a gaping hole in the zeppelin that is the royal family and its overripe history. 

In the meantime, Reform Judaism is still looking to the horizon, still attempting to find just the right combination of traditional life and secular life, between Jewish law and Jewish ethics. Evolution makes life interesting. Daring to push the envelope, to go for something big and different, is courageous. I genuinely admire Harry and Meghan for that. I love the rebels with a cause.

The Darkness and The Light

It’s the first Before Shabbat blog of 2020, and I have to speak about antisemitism; again. Antisemitism was the central subject of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur day sermons. I talked about it at length, reviewing the origins and the impact of antisemitism in America and in our own greater Boston community.

My motivation for those sermons was multifaceted. Some of it came from the terrorist killings in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA. These awful scenes of violence shook us all at our very core. It created a sense of fear and vulnerability where before there had been little to none.

When in our own community, a swastika was scrawled in a Newton middle school hallway, the impact was dramatic. That incident spurred me to think deeply about where we were in this challenging and turbulent time.It’s not stopping. And now, I am trying once again to come to terms with the latest violent attacks on Jews in America. It is confusing and harrowing to see this pattern of hatred playing out the way it has for centuries.

As David Nirenberg, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago said recently, “I think that, in every moment in which anti-Semitism really becomes an organizing principle in society, and anti-Judaism starts to do a lot of work in society, it is because of political polarization, economic stresses, et cetera, which make that language of anti-Judaism so useful as a system of thought. Every context is different, every period is different, but the reason that anti-Semitism can be put to work in so many contexts and periods is that anti-Judaism is such an integral part of the ways we have learned to imagine the challenges we face in the material world.”

Over and over, it’s “The Jews did it.” We crucified Jesus. We poisoned the wells and caused the Black Plague. We produced the financial collapses in every kingdom, fiefdom, and nation in the world. We are the capitalists set on taking it all. We are the communists set on taking it all. We participate in the blood libel.

The infamous images of hooked-nosed Jews with money bags are still recirculated from time to time, images that pre-date Nazi Germany by centuries. The claims that “Jews are rich,” or “Jews are smart,” still cause resentment. Those stereotypes, in turn, create hatred and envy towards Jews, which in turn, feed into the notion that if something bad is happening, it’s all because of the Jews.

This the madness of antisemitism. It is the ancient repetition compulsion that emerges from the darkest, ugliest, most paranoid crevice of Western culture. It is a dormant virus that is over 2000 years old.

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said, “We’re definitely in a different era, and it also looks like we’re seeing more assaults. A substantial proportion of these hate crimes involve brutal physical attacks on Orthodox Jews who are easily identifiable. Today anti-Semitism and ignorance about the Holocaust have simply become broadly acceptable, and that is reflected in the increasing number of assaults and diversity of offenders, who now also tend to be older. We are in an environment in which conspiracy theories seem to be in the news every day, and they’re not necessarily anti-Semitic conspiracies. But conspiracies are the lifeblood of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is becoming normalized. Most of the attacks are not done by extremists, but by your average Joe and your average Jane.”

You may be wondering what happens next. I wonder, too. How do we cope with this phenomenon? What are we supposed to do? I reviewed several options in my Yom Kippur sermon. But there is no strategy for “curing” antisemitism, no clear way to help people stop hating us.

Moving forward, we must be resolute when it comes to identifying antisemitism and hate crimes and then seek the full exercise of the law to prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent possible. We must neither hide nor barricade ourselves behind walls. We must be a safe and secure temple, even as we continue to be a place of openheartedness and community. We must be proud of who we are as Jews in America and hold fast to our freedom, a freedom we will not curtail, even if we are threatened.

None of these things is easy. But they are all vital components of how we will move forward. We are blessed to live in America, and we are cognizant, as never before, not to take our citizenship for granted. It is with a heavy heart that I submit my first Before Shabbat all about antisemitism. Again. I hope – and I will work for the possibility that we will yet achieve a time when it is calmer and safer for Jews, and for all others who are beaten and abused because of their race or religion or ethnicity or beliefs. It’s up to all of us to stand tough.