Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bad Jews. Talkin' 'bout the Bad Jews.

Sermon for Congregation Ner Shalom. Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5772.

Tonight, in the traditional spirit of the Day of Judgment, I am going to skip the niceties and talk about Bad Jews. Don't look around, there might be one sitting right next to you. But so that our evening won't be completely bleak I will try to make up for it by working around to the always stimulating topic of City Planning.

Let me start out with a confession.

Um, not mine. Yours. I'd like to ask all the Bad Jews in the room to raise their hands. If you've ever felt like a Bad Jew raise your hand. If you've ever told someone you were a Bad Jew, raise your hand.

I knew there would be a lot. I knew this because ever since I've had this particular post, people constantly tell me they're bad Jews. Many. And the count is rising.

Now let's get more subtle. Finish this sentence for me. I'm a bad Jew because _______________.

What can I say?

Shame on you. Shame on you all.

Bad Jews. Bad, Bad Jews.

So what do your answers have in common? It feels like there is some standard as to what constitutes a Good Jew. It involves a set of knowledge, observances, beliefs. A good Jew goes to synagogue. Keeps the Sabbath. Reads Hebrew. Believes in God in a particular way.

So then who exactly is the good Jew that you're comparing yourself with? Your parents? Grandparents? The Chasidim up the road?

Most people who tell me they're a Bad Jew recite a litany of things they don't do. It is true that ours is a tradition full of observances. Actions. Rituals. Candles we light, foods we eat or don't eat, things we say or do at specific times.

But strict adherence to a prescribed list of "does" and "don'ts" is not Judaism's only path, and maybe Judaism's great failure is not having let you on that little secret during the two hours a week we once had you in Hebrew School. Yes, there are acts, but there are values bigger than those acts.

A couple thousand years ago, Rabbi Shimon the Tzadik said some famous words: al shloshah devarim haolam omed. The world's existence - eternity's existence - depends upon three things: Torah, Avodah and G'milut Chasadim. That is, Torah, Worship and Acts of Kindness. But those English words are a very narrow translation.

Torah is our Torah, for sure, this scroll and the stories and laws it in it. But it is more. It is the act of learning and teaching, exploring received wisdom and giving birth to the new. It is that love of learning - even secular learning - that remains so prominent among Jews.

Avodah is not just worship, not just recitation of Hebrew prayers. It is moving through life with devotion, with awe, with gratitude, like so many people in this room have learned to do through their exploration of other traditions.

And g'milut chasadim is not just Boy Scout-style good deeds but all of our right actions, our acts of kindness and justice, our real-life engagement with the world in ways that build it, repair it, make it better, fairer, safer, kinder.

Torah, Avodah, G'milut Chasadim. Head, Heart, Hands. The world requires of us, eternity requires of us, our tradition requires of us, the best of our heads, hearts and hands. Regardless of whether what you do takes place in the Jewish world or not; regardless of whether what you do was just invented by you; regardless of whether you know a Hebrew word for it.

Judaism as we know it is the product not just of thousands of years of tradition, but of thousands of years of deviation and innovation. We have a long tradition of inventing it as we go along. Torah itself was an invention; the reading of a shared narrative took the place of animal sacrifice at just the right moment, changing Judaism forever. The Talmud invented the idea of authority coming not directly from God or king but from a process of lively and perhaps divinely inspired debate. Moses Maimonides, known as the Rambam, reinvented how we understand God and the Cosmos so that it could harmonize with the observations of science. And the Kabbalists re-reinvented how we understand God and the Cosmos so that it could harmonize with the deep stirrings of our hearts.

Judaism evolves. It recreates itself in every generation. We in 2011 do not live lives that permit strict observance of all the mitzvot. Can't be done. Our values have changed, our style has changed, and that's not a bad thing. Our evolving perception of who we are and what our purpose is in this mess of a universe can't anymore be easily expressed through a traditional Jewish life. In other words, traditional Judaism might no longer be the answer to the questions we Jews are asking, to the questions we are living.

Now this is where I'd like to pause and at last discuss our promised topic: City Planning. Last month I was in New York City and took a brilliant blue afternoon to walk on the High Line. Now, who here has been on the High Line in New York? Let me explain it.

The High Line
Manhattan is famous for its subway. An intricate network of trains running underground. But there used to be a line, called the High Line, that was an elevated train, like the El in Chicago. In time, the train stopped running, its usefulness to city and citizens eroded, leaving miles of elevated track abandoned and unrequited. The tracks were fenced off as weeds started to sprout between the rails. To some, the fossilized skeleton of the High Line was an eyesore. To others it was an adventure, a wild place for young people to hop fences, get a view and hang out.

In the late 1990s, two guys got an idea: to turn the High Line into a park. Initially frowned on, they slowly won over converts, until the idea had the momentum of a train, gathering passengers, donors, politicians, and gardeners as it went. And so there I stood on the High Line - a garden, sixteen blocks long and thirty feet above the ground, with grass and trees and herbs and flowers and fountains and benches and food vendors and street musicians. It has become one of New York's most popular and beautiful destinations. It was crowded with people smiling, holding hands, kissing, just being happy.

What a success! I walked the length of it to the uptown end, where it is fenced and locked and the tracks ahead are still disheveled and unattended. People stood at the chain link fence looking forward, imagining what this next segment will look like as time moves on. I did not perceive anyone wishing that the train were back.

So let's hit the emergency brake and come back to the question of you Bad Jews. What I learned from the High Line that day is that different times have different needs. The test of our Judaism isn't going to be how to keep people on the train. It will be how we can take the tracks, built over time with great skill and care, and turn them into a garden.

It is too late for us to stay on the train. We've been off the train for decades, maybe centuries. Or maybe there never was a train. Just these sturdy tracks that we've been moving along. It is too late for us to stay on the train and there is no shame in that. There is only shame in our declining to make a garden.

And Bad Jews are capable of making a garden. Bad Jews always have. Every innovation in our history has been some Bad Jew or other. Whether it was Maimonides's rationalism or Mendelsohn's Reform Judaism or the Baal Shem Tov' Chasidism. Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi were all outsiders, at the beginning.

Bad Jews rule. King David couldn't manage to keep the commandments, yet he was devoted to God, and beauty and poetry poured out with each breath. Queen Esther, non-observant, passed as a gentile -- a shiksa -- until her people needed her and she stepped in heroically.

    I have seen Bad Jews cure disease.

         And I have seen Bad Jews discover the origins of the universe.

    I have seen Bad Jews write literature to carry the mind aloft.

         And I have seen Bad Jews make music to make the angels cry.

    I have seen Bad Jews hit grand slam homeruns.

         And I have seen Bad Jews deliver perfectly timed punchlines.

    I have seen Bad Jews engage in incredible acts of devotion,
         in selfless acts of bravery,
         in tireless acts of justice,
         in mind-numbing feats of community organizing.

Maimonides: Bad Jew
I have seen the cavalcade of Bernsteins and Einsteins and Feinsteins. The Marxes - both Karl and Groucho. The Emmas - both Lazarus and Goldman. Bad Jews all. But all standing right there on the rusty tracks with us planting seeds in this new garden of ours.

Might we fail? Might our new ways of being Jewish, of doing Jewish, end up with no Jews at all? Of course we fear that. That has been the alarm sounded at every crossroads in Jewish history. And maybe this time the scoffers' direst predictions will come true. Our descendants will cease being Jewish and only the descendants of the Ultra-Orthodox will be. But if that's so, I can assure you they will not remain unevolving. Their grandchildren will want their freedom; the girls will want to be rabbis and leaders; the gay kids will keep turning up gay; until finally, in a couple generations, they will invent their own Reform or Reconstructionist or Renewal Judaism, suiting their times, and looking like a garden. And they will draw inspiration and wisdom from our efforts.

Emma Goldman: Bad Jew
But buck up, Bad Jews. That future is not a given by any means. We are still cultivating our garden, and you are equal to the task. Being citizens of the bigger world is what you were meant for. You are Hebrews - ivrim - made to move across boundaries. And you are Israel - Yisrael - meant not to follow like sheep but to struggle with God and everything else you've ever held holy. And, lastly, you are Jews, the people of Judah - Yehudah - embodiers of gratitude, whose ambition, whose thrill of discovery, whose delight in learning and dreaming and doing good works are embedded within an awareness, a mindfulness, a gratefulness for this life that we are given, for the engineering behind us and and the garden before us, and for the seeds and the watering cans in our hands.

Mordecai Kaplan: Bad Jew
Buck up, Bad Jews. Take your place in this world, wherever, whatever that place is. But this I ask of you. Take that place, unashamed, and call it Jewish. Teach your children your values, and call it Jewish. Do your good work, and call it Jewish. Feel some awe and some gratitude every day, whether or not you use or even know the words modeh ani, and call it Jewish. Make your ripples on into eternity, and call it Jewish.

It is a new year. So resolve to be the beautiful Jews you are (even you non-Jews), without the Bad Jew apology, without the Bad Jew shame. Activate fully and proudly the yiddishe kop, yiddishe hartz, and yiddishe hent that were given you. And may you be blessing for all of us.

Shanah tovah.

I am indebted to Rabbi Eli Cohen for his insights about the Shloshah D'varim and about the names of Israel, and to Adam Birnbaum for introducing me to the High Line.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A World of Teshuvah Ticklers

For Congregation Ner Shalom
Selichot, September 24, 2011

We think of teshuvah as an activity of limited duration - like an NPR pledge drive or a back-to-school sale, lasting from the beginning of the month of Elul through Yom Kippur. But our tradition teaches us that teshuvah can be done any day, any hour, any moment. Our introspection and return to our better selves will be accepted by God, if you will, or will be successful and transformative, as long as it is done wholeheartedly. Or brokenheartedly. Just not half-heartedly.

Healing relationships, fixing what we've broken through our actions, committing to try not to keep repeating the same mistakes - these are worth our attention any day, any hour, any moment. But the trick is to remember to do it.

The Ba'al Shem Tov had a practice. He would use the conduct of others as his invitation to engage in teshuvah. So, for instance, when he saw someone around him being angry without cause, or impatient with a loved one, or dishonest with a friend, instead of responding with anger or judgment, he would ask himself, "When have I been angry without cause, or impatient with a loved one, or dishonest with a friend." Usually, he wasn't at a loss for an instance of exactly that behavior. And he would use the opportunity to make teshuvah. Instead of adding to the pain of the world, he would take the moment to take from the pain of the world.

As some of you remember from a High Holy Day sermon a few years ago, I've tried to adopt a similar practice in the privacy of my car. I always think that driving a car is one of our purest tests of teshuvah. We interact with other drivers, but we are isolated and anonymous - a combination not necessarily designed to bring out our best. So when someone cuts us off carelessly or drives slowly because they're lost and trying to read the street signs, we experience greater to freedom to steam or curse or use our hands in extra creative ways. So I try to take the moment to remember the last time I did something stupid or even careless in the car, or was lost and trying to read street signs as traffic piled up behind me. My moments of car-teshuvah calm me and draw from me qualities of empathy rather than anger - which I'm happy about. The roads are paved with enough anger already.

Other Chasidic masters found other ways to remember the task of teshuvah. They looked for messages, for reminders, embedded within the day-to-day.

A cobbler - channeling divine hints?
For instance, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, it is said, was standing in his home, looking out at the street one year on the 1st of Elul. A shoe repairman came up to the window and asked him, "Don't you have something to fix?" The Rebbe immediately began to weep. "The Day of Judgment is approaching," he said, "and I still haven't fixed myself." And he moved into teshuvah.

Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa went to the market and wanted to buy something a farmer was selling. The rebbe and the farmer haggled, but they couldn't come to terms. Then the farmer looked the rebbe in the eyes and said to him in Polish: "do better," by which he meant "offer a better price." But when the rebbe returned home he thought to himself that "do better" meant something else: even the farmer was encouraging him to better himself and his deeds, or God's demand was coming to him through the guise of the farmer, and that the time had come for teshuvah.

Once you start looking for these messages, you'll find them everywhere. Like today on my airplane coming back from Boston. We hit a nasty pocket of turbulence just at the moment the flight attendant announced, "This will be your last chance to throw away any garbage." And as my heart beat in fear - I know planes don't fall out of the sky because of turbulence, but it always feels like they will - she repeated, "This will be your last chance to throw away any garbage." And I turned to a moment of teshuvah because, I thought,  you never do know when your last chance will be. There is never a reason to wait.

This is the conclusion of another Chasidic story about the famous brothers, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zusia of Hanipol, who would travel together incognito to better learn the needs of the people. One night they asked for hospitality at a small house. The balabosteh, the lady of the house, fed them and found them a place to sleep, explaining that her husband was away working until very late. The brothers went to sleep but woke up near midnight when they heard her husband come in quietly. He sat down at the table in the candlelight to sew up a hole that had torn in his coat so he could wear it again in the morning. His wife whispered to him, "Repair it quickly, while the candle is still burning."

The two brothers heard in this a holy insight: you must fix what needs fixing during this life. There is no other time to do it. Do your teshuvah now, before the candle goes out. Because teshuvah is available every day, every hour, every moment. We just have to remember.

Teshuvah can be a joyous engagement. We can enter with gratitude - that we have better selves to aspire to be, that we have relationships worth repairing, that we care about who we are in this world. So let us do our teshuvah with joy, with gratitude, with or without traditional language or Hebrew words, so that our presence on this planet will be a blessing.

This piece draws strongly from the wonderful material in Yitzchak Buxbaum's Jewish Spiritual Practices.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teshuvah, Gratitude and First Fruits

For Congregation Ner Shalom
September 16, 2011

This month of Elul is a fascinating time. We describe it as "contemplative" since it's already high teshuvah season, "atonement" season for lack of a better word. We are engaged, or encouraged to be engaged, in chesbon hanefesh - our own personal moral reckonings. And to heal rifts with others - our loved ones and sometimes our not-so-loved ones.

Teshuvah is a process that feels very private and contained. The sound of teshuvah is a kind of hush. It has an inward focus, a deep interiority, even when it involves others. In fact that's one of the things that makes teshuvah such a hard task, because it calls on us to build a bridge from our own interiority to the interiority of someone else. Not a meeting of the minds, but an uncharacteristic, often very engineered meeting of the hearts.

Teshuvah is a hard, sometimes painful task. It always feels like the right thing to do, but it does not have a high desirability quotient. We avoid it, or we force ourselves to do it, sometimes at the very last moment, only when push comes teshuvah.

So imagine my surprise recently when I stumbled on a quote from the early Chassidic master, Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the famed "Seer of Lublin." He gave this instruction:

When you pray about teshuvah and you express your hopes, you should say that you want to repent out of joy and expansiveness and amidst bounty, not from sadness and stress and in need and poverty.
I thought, how can this be? Asking for our teshuvah to come from a place of joy and expansiveness and bounty? Because for me teshuvah is all about getting smaller. Contrition feels like contraction. Atonement is about becoming "one" again after some spiritual scatteredness. The word teshuvah describes the act of returning - to the core, to the center of one's being, after wandering. We know how humbling the act of apology is, and taking account of our shortcomings inevitably makes us feel small.

But here the the Seer is suggesting that our goal is to do our teshuvah from a place of expansiveness and abundance. How is this possible to do?

So for guidance I did as I often do and checked out the week's Torah and Haftarah portions, to see what light they would shed. Now these are not pieces of Torah that are about teshuvah or about Elul. In fact, the Torah portion contains the instructions for observing the pilgrimage holiday of Shavuot, a holiday that we left behind over three months ago. And it is certainly odd that we end up reading about Shavuot not during Shavuot but on the eve of the New Year, just the way we read about the Exodus not during Pesach but midwinter. Such is our cycle of Torah reading. But this mashup of two moments - a lived moment and a narrative moment - has been ratified by thousands of years of cyclical Torah-reading. So by this point, looking at how Shavuot ritual and Elul intention dance together is certainly justified.

So I looked at our Torah portion, Ki Tavo and I looked at our Haftarah portion, from Isaiah. And there they were - both surprisingly beautiful and uplifting and full of light and hope.

I'll tell you first about Ki Tavo and its instructions for Shavuot. In Biblical times, Shavuot was a chag, or hajj. A pilgrimage festival, meaning that a pilgrimage was required. To Jerusalem, so that one could walk up to the Holy Temple itself, the heart of our people, the heart of holiness, and offer the first fruits.

Bikkurim (first fruits) by Estair Kaufman.
So I'll let you imagine it. It would go something like this.

As the first fruits of your field begin to sprout in early spring, you would tie a piece of papyrus around the stem so that you'd remember which were first to emerge. When ripe, you'd picked them. You'd pack them up carefully and head to Jerusalem, which would be full of people from all over the land.

On the day of Shavuot, you would bring those first fruits to the Temple -- not in your arms or in a sack but in a big basket that you wove for the occasion out of willow twigs. You'd probably arrange the fruit and vegetables beautifully, decoratively, in the basket, with an Alice Waters or Ariana Elster-like level of care. No animals, no meat. Your offerings are vegetarian and violence-free.

You'd approach the Temple with your basket of fruit.
You'd place the basket on your shoulder, or maybe on your head, making you look like a somwhat more modest Carmen Miranda, and you'd walk to the steps of the Temple, amidst crowds of people there for the same purpose, all wishing each other chag sameach - happy pilgrimage. Lutes and lyres would be playing and there would be dancing and talking and poetry. Or maybe it would be solemn and the procession would move in a hushed, dignified way, like Catholics awaiting communion.

When it was your turn, the priest on duty would greet you and you'd say, "Today I am affirming to Adonai, your God, that I have come to the land that Adonai promised to our ancestors."

The priest would take the basket from you and place it before the altar or maybe wave it in the altar's direction and place it elsewhere or maybe put it back in your hands for the moment.

And then would be your time to recite a memorized speech, in Hebrew, over which you undoubtedly would have butterflies because your Hebrew is probably rudimentary and this is an important moment. You would take a deep breath and recite words beginning with:

ארמי  אבד אבי
Arami oved avi...
 My father was a wandering Aramean...

You probably remember this speech from the Passover seder. It continues:

He went down to Egypt as an immigrant with just a small number of people; but there they became great and populous. The Egyptians were cruel to us, humiliating us and imposing harsh labor. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, who heard our voice and saw our suffering... and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand... and brought us to this place, this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now I bring the first fruits of the land that Adonai gave me.
And that would complete your offering. These words constitute a statement of national history and identity, articulated as family history, and personal identity. My father was a homeless wanderer. Even those who had converted to Judaism said those words, because they were considered to be the spiritual descendants, even if not the genetic ones, of Abraham and Sarah. My father was a wanderer, and then we were slaves, and now we are free.

Missing are the 40 years of wandering in the desert and the receiving of Torah. Instead the focus of this ritual is redemption from despair and arrival at a new beginning. The sweep, the arc is from suffering to offering. I went from suffering to safety, you say to the priest, and here is my offering, here is my gratitude. Over and over, every year.

Suffering to offering.

Oy, what I went through you wouldn't believe. Here, have a piece fruit.

Suffering to offering. Gratitude made physical, made gastronomic. Even today, three thousand years later, we all know that nothing says thank you like a basket of fruit.

Now let me tell you about this week's haftarah. It is from the Book of Isaiah, set in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it begins:

קומי אורי כי בא אורך וכבוד ה' עליך זרח
 Kumi ori ki va orech uch'vod Adonai alayich zarach.

Arise, shine, for your light has come. Adonai's glory is shining upon you. Darkness may cover the earth...but Adonai will shine on you. You will reflect Adonai's glory. Nations will be drawn to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance.
It is a haftarah of hope. It reads like a thesaurus entry; there are probably 8 Hebrew synonyms for the word light within the first three verses. When things seem bleak, Isaiah seems to say, there is not just a light at the end of the tunnel. There is light here, right now, bathing you. Bright, glowing. You just have to believe it; you just have to open your eyes and squint in the brightness.

So what is the lesson then for this time of year? How do these two moments of text reflect on our lived moment of self-examination, self-criticism, and atonement?

I propose a couple ways. One is prescriptive; one is descriptive. That is, one suggests a practice and the other its effect.

So here's the practice. In the discipline of teshuvah, "I'm sorry" cannot be the only mantra. It must somehow be paired with "thank you." Atonement and gratitude need to walk hand and hand. How can we do this?

We might look to feel grateful for the opportunity to become whole again each year. Or we might try to be grateful that we are walking this planet even while we are aware of our missteps. Or maybe we look inside and see we haven't at every moment been our best selves, but we are grateful that we have a best self, a clear image of who we might be that impels us to do better.1

Maybe the practice of gratitude has its best use in our teshuvah work with others. When you ask a loved one for mechilah, for forgiveness, maybe supplement with gratitude. I'm sorry if I've done anything to hurt you; and I'm so grateful to have you in my life. Or lead with gratitude: I'm so blessed that you're in my life; it makes me so sorry that I've hurt you.

This is useful. Because plain old apology has a tendency to hit the brakes on a relationship. It may be completely sincere and necessary and the apology accepted, but it can be followed by awkwardness and sometimes, alas, a hardening, a shell of self-protection against future hurt. But gratitude can soften that hardness. Gratitude can move us forward once again.

And don't stop at words of gratitude. Offer your first fruits, whatever those are. Your creativity. Your wit. Your love. Your help. Your care. Your shoulder. Offer something of the best of yourself to help pave the road ahead. 

And that is, perhaps, why teshuvah is a kind of contraction. Not to make us feel small. But to make room for a new beginning, for our better selves. Teshuvah is not a shrinking but a kind of tzimtzum - a contraction that creates space, like God's first act of tzimtzum, making way for Creation, making way for the first words, yehi or - let there be light.

Your expansive teshuvah - atonement paired with gratitude, will make you radiant. Your expansive teshuvah will pull back the curtains and let the light in or let your light out. As Isaiah told us, Kumi, ori, ki va orech. Rise and shine because your light has arrived.

And so may we do our teshuvah differently this year. May we express our gratitude for each other and for our lives and for our best selves. May we offer our best to those around us. May we learn to say, "I'm so grateful for having you in my life; for having the chance to clear the air. I offer you my best. This is my teshuvah." And may that teshuvah let the light shine in all our lives.

And let us say, Amen.

(And then would it hurt to send a basket of fruit?)

1.  I am grateful to Rabbi George Gittleman for this particular insight.