Friday, May 18, 2018

I Love Learning so I Keep Teaching - A Message for Shavuot, Pentacostal and Ramadan



Shavuot is the holiday on which Jews celebrate the receiving of the Torah. It comes at the same time in the calendar generally as the Pentacostal in the Christian world and this year it also parallels the timing of Ramadan for our Muslim friends in faith. That is to say that all of our monotheistic children of Araham or Avraham Aveinu are in an intentional space in the rhythm of our lives.

As it turns out, I am doing a great deal of additional teaching at this point, including running an assortment of programs for people of all ages. In the past few weeks, I have sat on a panel regarding Interfaith Relations at a Muslim Youth Center Building, taught a Lenten session at a Lutheran Church nearby, shared some thoughts regarding intentionality and where we find the quiet of prayer with a group of co-religionists in our Multi-Faith Council, presented a learning session on Gender and Models of Leadership that Defy a Dichotomous Sense of Gender Expectations to members of the Orthodox Jewish community, facilitated a morning of learning at the Medical Mission Sisters about inclusion and justice in Jewish sources, and so on. Tomorrow night I will be teaching in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot (where we stay up all night and learn as we prepare to celebrate the receiving of our Torah about how we learn to argue and dialogue from our Jewish sources, where clearly there are disagreements, but they are to come with respect and honor of those with whom we are engaged – a most important and relevant lesson for our world today. And of course, there are my ongoing weekly classes with amazing young scholars who are aged six through ten or so, adults and my ever wonderful Senior Life Long Learners.

True, there have been lots of extra preparations and work to provide these experiences, and I am now beginning a new run of five such engagements over the next two months. But the amazing part is this is NOT work. I get to learn and learn some more….. and I love it. I get so energized by the way different projects intersect with, enhance and validate each other. And due to my many different experiences, I get to bring all of it into the group with which I am learning at any given time. I see the many facets of Torah, of faith, of our various communities of faith and of the many ways we approach God. This bolsters and encourages me when I get so frustrated with what continues to come over the 24/7 news feed. It restores my spirit and strengthens my faith.

My seven and eight year olds want to know why we don’t learn lessons and repeat the same mistakes. So do my Senior Life Long Learners. My colleagues, friends and students in interfaith settings are always amazed at how much we share and how similar we are, while I remind them to honor and acknowledge our differences as well. I love bringing the Gemara which I just love in terms of the process of text learning to my adult co-learners/students. And so it goes.

Shavuot is a celebration of Torah and learning and the many lessons that we can all learn from each other if we are listening and open to the dialogue and discourse that will continue to expand our own horizons. It’s easy to sit with a group of people with whom one agrees; the challenge is to be open to learn something new from those with whom we differ.

I wish all a meaningful Shavuot, an enriching Pentacostal and a fulfilling Ramadan. For those of you of other faiths, the message holds as well and I hope it will resonate at the appropriate season.

Friday, April 27, 2018

THE LAW OF THE LAND IS THE LAW – AND THAT MEANS YOU TOO

One of the things I do is cheerlead for religion. As an observant and dedicated practitioner of Judaism, I truly believe that the foundational principles and the dictates of Jewish practice have the potential to truly bring out the best in each of us. I find the same to be the case for my friends and colleagues of Christian, Moslem and other communities of faith. That being said we have a problem, and succinctly stated, here it is. There are those who are members of all of our faith traditions who believe that by observing what they consider to be the “letter of the law,” they are exempt from its spirit or any other system of law which may be relevant to their lives – including civil law, laws of humanity and so forth. In so doing, they may not even be following the letter of the law, but that is an entirely longer and more complicated conversation. Too many stories. We all know the unfortunate barrage of narrative of sexual abuse, tax evasion, misappropriation of funds intended for a stated purpose in our religious communities and so forth. There is the self-proclaimed fervently religious individual who sets himself up as a paradigm of all that is right and correct in life who proceeds to build a huge house in a township and proudly states with a laugh, “I have broken every ordinance they have. We got around them.” Then there are the honorees in religiously observant communities who absolutely use public funds inappropriately or do not properly report income and skirt their taxes. There are the communities that push sexual misconduct under the rug and coerce people to let the community deal with the problem so as not to “harm” the community. Business dealings in our non-profit religious organizations that occur between a religious leader, who is an employee, and the board that governs the community of faith. All of these are seriously problematic, both from a legal point of view as well as from the religious perspective as well. In Jewish teachings, we learn that “dina d’malchuta dina” -- the law of the land is the law! That is to say that NO OBSERVANT JEW is exempt from being a totally honest and law-abiding citizen. This standard is also held by my colleagues mentioned above in their respective communities. No wonder too many people turn away from what they observe as the blatant hypocrisy of religious communities. While I totally understand their angst, and cannot say they are wrong, I do believe that we all need to step back and remember that there is never any guarantee that this Priest or that Rabbi or another Pastor or youth leader, just because they are working within the context of the religious sphere necessarily lives according to the proper codes of conduct. Yes, there is way too much “hiding under the cloak,” so to speak. So how do we address this problem, especially in our present climate where more and more passes seem to be given to those in authority or those who “seem to be” so religious? We learn in our Jewish teachings to choose your own mentor (Rabbi or leader) and to acquire for yourself a friend to share your journey. Here is the answer. We need to ask ourselves who are our role models and be careful NOT to yield to what may “seem to be Kosher,” if you will, but rather insure that you are associated with those who are, as we learn in Jewish texts, “tam v’yasher” – or truly and completely honest and acting with integrity. If we can do this for ourselves and empower those around us NOT to assume but to ask questions and choose carefully, very carefully, then perhaps we will be able to truly help our various faith communities put all that they are and the wonderful lessons they teach out there for all to see.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

THE CONTINUATION OF SPECIAL and THOUGHTFUL DAYS IN THE JEWISH CALENDAR



I write this on the eve of Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day in the Jewish calendar, which comes precisely four days after the end of Pesach/Passover, when we celebrate FREEDOM and its many gifts as well as challenges. We all go to ceremonies, light candles, listen to survivors tell their story and say NEVER AGAIN – never again should such a horrid event occur. Then a mere week later, we observe and celebrate Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day and Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day. Wrapped up in these two observances which come on two consecutive days is the particular admixture of our losses, namely those who have died in defending Israel, along with the celebration of Israel being a recognized, powerful and in many ways remarkable entity in our world today. But this did not just happen and it is critically important that we are always mindful of the many different elements in our lives and how they interact with each other, often in complicated and extremely protracted ways, reflecting a most delicate balance and ever-present vulnerablity.

Earlier today, when I was learning with my favorite second graders at Perelman Jewish Day School, I asked the students to think about the aftermath of leaving Egypt and all that we discussed in learning about Pesach/Passover. In doing so, I made two columns on the board, one named YISRAEL and the other named MITZRAYIM. I then asked them to think of words to describe each. We began as one might expect, with the clearly identified good guys (Yisrael/Israel) and the bad guys (Mitzrayim/Egypt). For Yisrael, the kids used the descriptive terms of NICE, KIND, HARD WORKING, TRUSTING IN GOD, CARING ABOUT EACH OTHER and so on. For MITZRAYIM, such words were elicited as BAD, MEAN, POWERFUL, SELFISH, RUDE, and such. Then at one point, one child shouted out US for YISRAEL. At that point, I had achieved what I wanted. Within this time frame, one kid asked “Weren’t there any Egyptians that were nice?” Then we were really off to the races for what I wanted to convey to these very wise seven and eight year olds. We spoke about how this is NOT always an issue that can simply be reduced to GOOD guys and BAD guys but in actuality, we all have the potential to be either and elements of both are included in the complexity of who we are as human beings. We can turn too easily to the default position of I AM GOOD and THE OTHER IS BAD, whatever that may mean. That being said, this reduces humanity to what it is not – singular and easily caricatured. …

Okay, so now it is mid-Thursday and I have attended Yom HaShoah programs and taught a class about what it means to be a perpetrator or a bystander and go on with your life while terrible things happen. In preparing my class, I used a particularly chilling source which included excerpts from Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Worse than War, which shows in a carefully and skillfully constructed argument how the behaviors of a perpetrator can seep into the most cautious of us and how we, the GOOD people, can become part of what is VERY BAD and wrong. He shows how the Nazi perpetrators among many others in various atrocities were good family men, went to church, loved their families and participated in the very human actions that they told themselves were not part of the lives of those they wished to annihilate. It was precisely through this process of dehumanization that people “joined the party,” so to speak, and were complicit in the horrors that have occurred, both in the events today commemorates, and in too many cases since then.

While it is clear that those of us who see ourselves as honest, caring and good people want to (and need to) distance ourselves from what is evil, it is important to recognize its presence and to understand and feel our own vulnerability to its pull. I feel that this is the case in the country in which I live at this time. While rhetoric has reached an increasingly high pitch, and the most bizarre statements are made by the person, who supposedly represents this country and its ideals to the world – too many have reduced what is a clear and present danger to comic and dismissive antics. TOO MUCH IS AT STAKE.

In a few days when Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut are observed with solemnity and then celebrated with joy in Israel, the joining of the messages – the visceral participation in a nation wide moment of silence where cars literally stop on the highway and everyone gets out and stands at attention, similar to what happened today, will lead to the parties and the streamers and the joy of celebrating seventy years of the Third Commonwealth of the State of Israel. BUT, and this is a most important qualifier – NO ONE will not be mindful of the losses that led to that victory – both when the world realized that Jews were not safe in Europe too late and in the loss of life that birthed this country, with its good points and not-there-yet points.

I would ask that Americans take a card from Israel’s national playbook. We CAN NO LONGER afford to glibly allow that adage of old reoccur, namely that evil happens when good people do nothing. We must all act! We must all remember! We must ALL understand that if one is vulnerable and threatened we are all vulnerable and threatened! If some are not free, we are all not yet free! Only when we understand this, can we say NEVER Again (recently co-opted by just such a movement of threatened populous in the United States) and truly mean it!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Pesach, Freedom and Using our Freedom Responsibly

In the past few weeks I have vacationed in Hawaii, read Noa Baum’s book, A Land Twice Promised, finished another book, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and of course continue with my daily learning of Gemara with its many lessons about how we negotiate conflicting interests in situations where there are disputes about property and personal rights, as well as having participated in various learning circles with my students of so many different ages, all with their wisdom to share. There always seems to be this theme of intentional listening no matter where I go and what I am doing or reading these days –-- I mean really hearing and absorbing the perspective of the person sitting and chatting with you, while holding on to your own thoughts and narrative and beliefs – accepting their perspective as legitimate for them and yours as appropriate for you, if the interaction is indeed honest and constructive.

I will begin where I am right now – sitting in the airport in Honolulu waiting for our plane to Phoenix, where hopefully we will eventually get to Philadelphia at some point in the next few days, depending on the weather over which we have no control. So of course, everywhere you go in this wonderful and beautiful place, you hear the word Aloha. What exactly does Aloha mean? It’s a combination of all the manifestations of the word Shalom – meaning greetings, peace and wholeness; with the added components of love, happiness, and compassion. Everyone wishes it to each other and you really feel like they mean it. There is a calm here, a sense of peace and contentment. Another important word I learned is Ohana, meaning home, family, and relationality. Such an important and heartfelt word with a wonderful mixture of pride and humility – you feel its presence everywhere in Hawaii. I remember this observation from the last time that we were in Hawaii fifteen years ago, and I was not imagining or romanticizing about it – that sense is still here and it seems as sincere and real as can be. Even the very means of communication – the Hawaiian language, with its total of twelve letters --- yes, that is right, twelve letters and here they are: A, E, I, O, U, H, L, M, N, W, K and P – reflect this. The language has a very soft sound and lyrical lilt to it, with only TWO hard consonants – the K and the P. Everything else is soft and gently melodic. I think there is something to be learned here --- less can definitely be more. Relaxed people speaking a gentle language with a calm demeanor – there is so much to learn from this.

That is how it appears to be. But that is clearly not the whole story. Last time I was here, we learned about some of the conflicts and fractured nature of the Hawaiian identity – the fiftieth state of the United States as of 1959 but before that a Monarchy whose very identity was taken away on so many levels. With pride from its past as a royal government with its rooted Polynesian culture, it has become a wonderful part of the country of which it is part. The day I spent at the Iolani Palace reinforced this perspective as did our time at Pearl Harbor. Its men and women have long and proudly served in the military and its American citizens of Japanese ancestry were some of the most decorated soldiers and military units this country ever saw. The nature and the magnificence of the surroundings, the myths that are still woven intricately into the Hawaiian identity, the art, music and everything about this place has its own distinct identity to be sure. Yet, there are feelings of how American are Hawaiians? Are they seen as American even if their ancestral roots go back to Japan or elsewhere? Are they looked at as Americans or indigenous others? Are they accorded the dignity to which they are clearly entitled? Identity is always such a tricky matter and this tension is indeed present, seeping through the magnificent scenery and its proud people in little and subtle ways when one pays attention, which I always try to do.

Simultaneously, as I have just finished reading these two books, again, I am caught in the quagmire of the world of complicated and multi-faceted identities, fractured history and interaction of people who need to negotiate a shared existence and not relegate each other to THEM, the enemy, the one who will not be my friend and whom I will not consider as an equal, one entitled to the same rights of existence as those in my life. Koreans and Japanese and Chinese in Pachinko; and Israelis and Palestinians in Noa’s narrative of the development of her storytelling performance – in both of these narratives and in my touring and learning about so much of the history of Hawaii, the notion that there is not just ONE TRUTH that is MY REALITY is so prevalent. The importance of being able to see our reality from the vantage point of another’s truth while not compromising our own is critical if we are going to move forward in our world today. Listening to Hawaiian music and just living in the world of Aloha for a few days brings a sense of serenity and calm we could all use more of in our lives. By acknowledging that we all have our stories and our pain and our historical narratives and that these are the ingredients of our truth allows us to interact with each other in a caring and compassionate way instead of living with increased angst with no indication of resolution. Further, when we hear the story of the other, we recognize our own reality and how much we ultimately share. Watching and hearing Hawaiians speak of their mythology and gods and goddesses that are part of the very landscape of the volcanoes, beautiful waterfalls, lava spills, beautiful flora and all that is here and I identify as God’s wondrous artwork – I acknowledge that while we have different explanations of these wondrous phenomena, we all agree that there is an other-worldliness and sense of awe-inspiring amazement that is shared. The breath we share in our collective gasp at this beauty transcends the notion that there are different explanations behind individual elements of that reaction to wonder.

So now, two days later, I am sitting in yet another airport, this one in Detroit, REALLY hoping that this last one and a half hour flight will finally get us home, almost two days after we were to be home in Philadelphia. After making peace with the impact of yet another Nor’easter, we ended up spending a bonus two days in Phoenix until we could finally get a plane – the one we are now waiting for at 3:05 am Friday morning. We used our time in Phoenix to continue our education about yet another group of Americans that are too often seen as “other,” namely the Native Americans. We spent a day at The Heard Museum, which I highly recommend as a “must do” if you find yourself in Phoenix, either by plan or … not. Seeing the painful stories of confused identity, the attempts at acculturation by sending the Native American children to boarding schools to “make them good and proper American citizens” while attempting to purge them of their rich and powerful history and heritage, the sad stories of artists who held so much pain in them, and of course the military exhibit – again standing as witness to those decorated soldiers who did so much for our country in which we all live and yet did not merit the same consideration as citizens that those of us of privilege do not have cause to question.

What is so terribly wrong with this picture? Pesach or Passover is quickly approaching for those of us in the Jewish community. This is the most celebrated and observed holiday or experience of the entire Jewish calendar. Its seminal story of freedom and the change of destiny from a group of slaves to a nation of free people is critical to our world on so many levels. Yet, while we may intellectually appreciate the transition and think that we have achieved what needs to bring the best of humanity out in all of us, we have to remember the other part of this freedom – the responsibility that comes with being able to determine one’s own destiny.

Our family loves Sedarim (the special Passover meals the first two nights of the holiday), I mean we really LOVE them. We often take on themes that will help us craft an experience that is particularly meaningful and gives each Seder its own special script, if you will. One of our Sedarim this year will be focused on Oppression and Oppressed People in our World, and how the text of our Haggadah (the script that frames this meal and experience) enjoins us to remember the one who is not as advantaged and privileged as us and our responsibility to care for and advocate for them – that is using our privilege for good.

This is clearly in my mind as I begin to think carefully about these experiences, which happen in one week. As I consider and plan for these festive and meaningful gatherings, I will be remembering the Hawaiians who treasure their past and bring a unique sense of serenity and history and Aloha to our reality. I will be thinking of Israelis and Palestinians who need to (and are in rapidly increasing numbers) come to a better understanding of each other beyond the politics in which too many of us get mired. I will be thinking of Koreans with their proud heritage and treasured past who live in Japan and who deal with the very real threat of losing their ancestral identity. I will be considering the Native Americans, their beautiful art and their rich history and stories which have lessons for all of us.

Let us all remember that freedom is something that free people must value enough to grant to all around them. If we do not feel that the “other” (whoever that may be) is worthy of freedom, than are we ourselves so worthy; and are we truly free? This is the foundational lesson of Passover and so much else in the rhythm of Jewish life – you shall NOT oppress any other, for you were oppressed in the land of Egypt. Let us all celebrate our respective seasons of freedom while remembering that all human beings are to be included in our hopes for such validation and actualization of self. With sincere wishes of Shalom and Aloha for all!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Lessons from Baba Kamma: How Far Does Honesty and Integrity Go?



I have a dear friend who was a Prison Chaplain on the West Coast for many years. During his tenure he, a Rabbi ordained in the Conservative Movement would have among his prisoner populations self-proclaimed observant Jews, who were indeed such according to their appearance and an ongoing barrage of complaints and challenges regarding whether or not their needs as Halachically observant Jews were being met. Fair enough, well sort of… I remember one time, my friend shared with me a conversation he had during one of these challenging interactions (based on the fact that he as a Conservative ordained Rabbi could not possibly state positions indicating that needs were being met for matters such as the need to drink wine for Shabbat or Hagim, scheduling chores so that Shaharit – the morning prayers- could be said at precisely the right time, the correct Matbeah – order and cadence of prayers – was used and so on. In short, they just kept yanking his chain. One day he asked one of these pious observant Jews what they were in prison for – a fair question, to be sure. “Embezzlement,” the gentleman replied, “and that’s okay because its not forbidden in the Torah.” Enough said! First of all, do we really have to even go there – that embezzlement or any type of “creative financial management” of that sort is not robbery?

I have a wonderful jeweler/artisan named Lucy in my life, who makes a lot of custom jewelry for me. She is a lovely lady and it is always fun to have her make stones and pieces I have from past chapters of living come to life in a new and meaningful way. Once I brought her a very sizable stone of Eilat to take out of its silver base and put into a good gold one so I could give a nice gift of my mom’s jewelry to a cousin with whom I am very close and love dearly. The piece came out beautifully and I had told Lucy to keep the silver for something else she will do. I noticed when I picked up the piece, the silver framing was there. I reminded her that she could add it to her stockpile of supplies. Then she insisted on paying me for it. I refused and finally told her it was a very small gift – a token of my appreciation for all that she does.

This morning, I finished Masechet Baba Kamma, a Tractate of Talmud learning and want to share something from this learning as a mini-Siyyum. I am looking forward to a more official celebration of this Masechet and my learning of it in one of the shuls I go to in the near future. So you are now thinking, okay, Sunnie has lost it…. what in the world is she writing about? So I will share how this all connects, though my fellow Talmud learners are probably already there.

You see, so much of Jewish Law is about how we go in our daily lives, our actions, our interactions with others, the actual things we do, the intent with which we do them, and the outcomes of those actions, including the impact on others. The very word for Jewish Law is HALACHA, that is HOW WE GO or GOING.. that is going about the daily actions in which we are involved in a proper way.

So now, back to my two stories. First my friend the Rabbi who was a prison chaplain and his predicament! Embezzlement IS stealing… GENEIVAH. As Baba Kamma nears its end, very clear distinctions are made between stealing and robbing, with someone’s knowledge or without someone’s knowledge and the requirement to not only return the stolen goods but also to make right the wrong that was committed. These discussions are lengthy and take up so much of the Tractate which is 236 very long pages of discussion and qualifications and definitions and imagining various iterations of wrongdoing. Further, within these teachings, we learn about the incredible harm that such a lack of respect for the property of others does and that it can hedge on being similar to murder. Just think, for example, of all of the victims we know who lost their life savings to Bernie Madoff and his dishonest practices, while so many in the religious sectors of the Jewish community had sung his praises for being such a dedicated Jew for so long. Baba Kamma teaches that even if there is a hint that something could look like misappropriation of the funds or belongings of another, it is not to be done. While Jews often talk of a “fence around the Torah” when it comes to Shabbat, Kashrut and other ritual aspects of our lives (and remember, I guard all of these Mitzvot carefully), I wonder how many worry about this. Clearly not one who thinks that embezzlement is somehow okay. And yes, there is what to be concerned about whether we are dealing with those in our faith community as well as those outside of it. When we cheat or steal or take anything that is not ours, we DISHONOR GOD. Further, the text teaches that the one who steals LOSES HIS SOUL and in the end will not come to any good. Further, his own children and future generations may suffer.

And now back to my second story. Lucy is Asian and observes a different code of ethics and behaviors in terms of their source, but not so much in terms of their impact. Her persistent desire to return to me what was mine feels now like it comes right off of the last pages of this Tractate, which clearly stipulates how much an artisan who is contracted to make something for someone is entitled to keep as theirs and how much goes back to the owner of the material. Lucy was observing the “letter of this law” in her process and by gifting her in the end, I released her from her obligation to return what was mine. This is clearly spelled out in this text.

Baba Kamma is one of three tractates, along with Baba Metziah and Baba Batra about property law, about damages, about punishments and clearly proscribed limits to be placed on them – another lesson for contemporary society to consider – that are commensurate with the wrong done, and the notion that one must not only return stolen or ill-gotten goods but must also make the wrongdoing to the person who was affected right by their admission of their wrongdoing. There is so much else here but then this might go on and on… for 236 long pages and we would not want to do that, so I will end here and wish all a Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Lent to my Christian friends, Happy Korean New Year to those watching the Olympics, and the wish that we all keep to the spirit of the laws to which we are accountable as much as the letter of the law. Be well, all!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Why Boxers Must Retire and Pride in the Philadelphia EAGLES!

Why Boxers Must Retire and Pride in the Philadelphia EAGLES! Okay, so the second part is obvious. It is indeed a wonderful time to be in Philadelphia. I have watched my entire family over the past decades REALLY WANT a winning team and now they and all of us have it. I love the positive energy and the excitement and the pride in this wonderful team of guys who have worked so well together to achieve what no one thought possible just six months ago. But there is another side that worries me.

Some years back, I met a boxer. I mean a REAL boxer with big flashy championship belts and everything. WORLD CLASS! A really nice guy and kind of fun to hang out with, not to mention quite different from the circles of people I normally know and have contact with.

I noticed right off the bat that he was a bit sluggish in his speech and had a distant cast to the look in his eyes. Now this guy was the one whose hand was raised and everyone cheered. But he had his share of punches and jabs to the head through his years of boxing. And I must say, it showed and definitely had an impact on the quality of life at the point I met him. This seems all the more poignant and reason to give pause as we all know that we are hearing more and more in the news and in various sources about the down side of these sports – the lost lives, the ruined lives, the lesser quality of life. How do we square the elation that is presently going on in my city with this reality that is so much a by-product of this sport that engenders this excitement. More and more parents DO NOT WANT their children to play or be involved in these sports that have such a high degree of potential harm.

I remember thinking about this at one point during the Super Bowl when a player from the New England Patriots seemed to be disoriented during the game and began going around in circles (I think his last name is Cooks). He was struck when he ran into the helmet of another player and then taken off the field. What is going on in his head and how will he be in ten or twenty years? I wonder.

Years ago, I met a former Philadelphia Eagle in an airport when I was traveling for work. We sat and chatted as random travelers often do. No, as my family clearly indicated their disappointment in me, I did not get his name and definitely did not ask for an autograph. But he talked a good deal about how the game has changed so much and become less sport and more something else – entertainment, business, money maker – and not for the good of the players, who now may themselves have different reasons that motivate them to play. He bemoaned the fact that more injuries are overshadowing the pleasure of the game and that these injuries can bring long lasting effects diminishing one’s quality of life. I asked him if other players from his era felt the same way and he indicated that yes, many he knew did. Definitely a sobering conversation and this may have something to do with why I do not really enjoy watching sports where there is a real potential for such devastating harm.

But, I did watch the Super Bowl and cheer like crazy with our friends as the game progressed, and shared the nervous feeling in the room when it was possible that there was going to be another outcome. We cheered and yelled at the end and it was pure elation. Pride in feeling part of this country, our city and so much else! Proud of the humility and the gratitude and the feeling of God’s presence as indicated by so many players and coaches when they spoke! And then I wondered about these guys and the impact this game that they love so much and to which they have such loyalty is being kind or cruel to them.

I know there is great discussion about this in many circles. I do not know where it will lead. I do hope however that we all remember that behind all of the pageantry and excitement, there are human beings and somehow we need to show concern for them and their future. How do we walk that balance beam? How many of us even think about it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE AND DAILY LIFE: THE DYNAMIC DUO



The Pope says it. Many Rabbis for whom I have great respect and regard say it and often! Many ministers and Imams and various clergy and religious people within many different traditions claim and live it. We need to be in both worlds – the world of our faith and the world of our daily dealings and each should inform and be informed by the other. This is the only way this religion thing will work constructively. Clearly, that is why Jews have tomes and tomes of text explaining what it is exactly that the Torah says and how we are to apply it in our lives. Acknowledged are the dynamics that there are often conflicting issues and dynamics and that a standard that will work in one context is not the one to apply in another context even though they may look similar – the difference is definitely determined by the details – requiring an equal dose of knowledge of the world that is as well as the religious standards by which one lives. It is ONLY at this intersection that Jewish law or Halacha is crafted and intended to be practiced.

Throughout my career I have focused on bringing together the texts and teachings of my religious heritage (as well as others that I find so instructive and inspiring), the critical issues of the day, and the learners in the room. This is how our lives, as people of faith and observance, are meant to be lived. In my daily learning of Gemara, this is reinforced. Recently as I am in the middle of Baba Kamma, I came across the following statement that would challenge that sentiment:

"But is learning Greek wisdom really prohibited? ... Shmuel stated in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, “I can apply this to what I saw myself. A thousand young men were in the household of mu father. Five hundred of them studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom, and no one remains from this second group except for myself and my cousin ….The members of Rabban Gamliel’s household were different in that they spoke the language and learned Greek wisdom, for they were close to the Roman monarchy.” [Baba Kamma 82b - 83a]

I am well aware of those in the more right pitched part of the Orthodox Jewish community who do not value nor pursue secular (or general) fields of knowledge. It would appear that here they have strong support for that position and in other such statements of a seemingly similar sentiment, which do exist. Further, one could (and many do) make the case that this would bolster the position of those in this same part of the Orthodox Jewish world who aschew any contact with the outside world in a meaningful way or any steps that would take them away from Torah, so to speak. There are similar groups with similar reasons in other religious groupings as well.

So how do I reconcile this seeming validation for such a closed worldview with the intellectual and sophisticated stance I so often find in the Gemara and other Jewish texts. I go to context and look at the larger text within which such statements appear; which is really the only way to understand them and their intended message. In this case, my comfort is found in the last statement about proximity, physically and culturally, and in so many ways to the Roman monarchy. The students and members of Rabban Gamliel did NOT live in isolation in their closed monochromatic village, but were part of the larger world. It was in that context that this knowledge was sought, needed and valuable. In fact, it was Rabban Gamliel in Maseches Rosh Hashanah 2:8, who had the charts of phases of the moon in his upper office which would be used to help the witnesses who would proclaim the New Moon for the community. Rabban Gamliel knew well that he and all those he influenced had to be part of both the secular world of living and the Jewish world of observance; and that it was only in bringing these two together in a symbiotic interaction that each would be actualized in daily life. This was particularly critical in understanding the science of the phases of the moon as this was, you will remember, before printed calendars, and communities depended on this information for the very rhythm of their lives.

I watch and am continually honored and heartened to hear, many years after our shared learning experience, students of mine report that they are following this formula daily in their lives. My own children honor and awe me daily as they bring their Jewish knowledge and foundational values to their work, community involvements and all that they do to try to make our world a better, kinder place. Doctors, lawyers, community organizers, educators, business people and all of us are concerned today about the state of our secular world. In response, there are too many in the more closed and isolated parts of our religious spectrum who will say, “See, the students who dabble in secular knowledge are only going to destroy or be destroyed,” echoing what they might want to read into this text from Baba Kamma. Yet, my contention is that it is precisely these people who can bring so much healing and good energy to our fractured world. Further, those who feel an obligation or responsibility to do so will indeed make a profound difference. This is what I believe Rabban Gamliel understood and why he approved of such a bringing together of the secular and the religious.

In the Jewish cycle of Torah readings we finished several weeks ago reading about Yoseph (Joseph) who did precisely that in his role as Viceroy of Egypt and simultaneously bringing his family back together, insuring the continuation of the Jewish nation as he did so. Some of his actions are questioned and reasonably so, but what is one of the most important takeaways from this narrative is his bringing together these two worlds within the reality of his life. Then we moved on to the narrative of Moshe (Moses), who clearly brought together his Jewish sensibilities and what he had learned due to his proximity to, actually privileged residence, in the Egyptian world. Today, think of the many leaders in our world who are speaking out from a profound sense of this interfacing of the secular and the religious and compare them to those who would separate these two spheres, focusing excessively on the one or the other.

In Yoma 72b we read as follows: "If one is deserving, [the Torah] becomes for him an elixir of life; if undeserving, a deadly poison." As I often write in this blog and in so many other places, this is a matter of balance. Our bodies need our souls, we are better with our partners and friends in life than alone, we accomplish so much more together than separate. It is no different with our knowledge from these two spheres. This was understood by our teachers of the Mishnah and Gemara and so many others to come. This is the beauty of Jewish knowledge. Remember that much more of the Talmud and so many sources of Jewish law are precisely about how we live our lives day to day than our ritual practice. What does that tell us? It confirms what the Pope, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and so many teachers of so many faith communities confirm and teach today – that the purpose of religious teaching is not to scare us into hiding, but rather to help us bolster and make our world a better and more reasonable place for all.