Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ordinary spirituality

When we talk about spirituality, we often seem to mean what psychologists call “peak experiences.”

You know: the kind of experience that leaves you overcome with awe and wonder.“Peak” in this sense doesn’t really refer to mountaintops, but common descriptions of peak experiences often seem to involve mountains. For example, reciting the morning prayer Modeh ani at the top of a mountain precisely at dawn.

That could be deeply moving. Or it might not be—that’s unpredictable. In any case, it requires getting oneself up to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise.

Such experiences are necessarily rare, and we can’t count on producing one on demand. So I’d like to talk here about ordinary spirituality, the experiences that available without extreme effort. 

Let’s start with one that’s available every Friday evening. When we sing “L’cha Dodi” early in the service, we turn toward the entrance  for the last verse in order to welcome Shabbat, which is seen metaphorically as a bride arriving to wed the entire Jewish people.

Instead of turning back toward the front immediately at the end of the verse, try visualizing a bride proceeding slowly down the aisle while the chorus is sung. Turn slowly as she walks along and see if it enhances your experience of Shabbat.

Or try to abstain from gossip whenever the opportunity arises. (This is harder than it sounds.) Remember as you do so that gossip is worse than just “not very nice”: it’s lashon hara, evil speech, which is prohibited by the Torah.  

You might try choosing food consciously. Maybe you’re not interested in keeping kosher, but would “Biblical kashrut” make sense for you? That means avoiding just pork,  shellfish, and intentional combinations of meat and milk.

Or perhaps “eco-kashrut” has some appeal: choosing locally grown food when you can, looking for natural products, or increasing the plant-based portion of your diet.

What about visiting a sick person? This is an important mitzvah for all Jews, not just rabbis. In particular, find out whether someone recently home from the hospital needs help with shopping or getting to follow-up medical appointments. (If you could consider doing this on request, even for someone you might not yet know, please tell us.)

Most important: when you do any of these things, remember that it’s not just nice, or good for your health. It’s a Jewish action, a mitzvah.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, is quoted as saying, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” Temple is of historical interest for another reason: in 1942, he and Rabbi J.H. Hertz founded the British Council of Christians and Jews, and throughout World War II he exhorted the Allies to intervene against the slaughter of Jews in Europe. 

It must have been a radical step for the chief cleric of the Church of England to say that God might not be very concerned with religion. After all, he was in the religion business, so to speak.

It is, however, a very Jewish idea. Our tradition holds that how well, or how much, you pray is of much less importance than how you live.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Choosing not to choose

In July, I presented three sessions at NewCAJE, the New Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

I also attended many sessions, including one asking “Can the Center Hold?” with Dr. David Starr, who was one of my teachers at Hebrew College. He’s also a JTS-ordained rabbi, and by “center” he meant “Conservative Judaism.”

Conservative Judaism has portrayed itself not only as the philosophic center of Judaism, positioned between Orthodox and Reform, but also as the “big tent” that had room for everyone. For decades it was the largest movement in American Judaism, but the desire to include all Jews was a constant strain. On one hand, a large share of members became more liberal in practices and views. On the other, a minority wanted the Conservative movement to be more like Orthodox Judaism.

Today the Reform movement is the largest in America. It is also probably the philosophical center, not only because of moving toward the center itself, but also because so many American Jews have moved to the left of Reform.

As I see it, the fastest-growing segment of American Judaism is “Just Jews”: those who do not define themselves by affiliation to a movement, even if they happen to be members of a movement-affiliated congregation. I expect to see growth in the number of communities like ours, attempting to include all Jews by “choosing not to choose.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


When I speak in churches, I often say that Christianity has it mostly wrong about the Pharisees. In the Jewish orbit, it’s something that we rarely think about—but we should. The early rabbis who re-created Judaism in the form that we know were the direct successors of the Pharisees. In other words, we are the heirs of the Pharisees. 

Yet in common speech, “pharisaic” denotes hypocrisy, self-righteousness, or obsession with rules. The term Pharisee derives from the Hebrew root l’faresh, to interpret. Originally, it described Jews of approximately the first century CE who believed that the Torah should be studied for its underlying principles rather than solely as a rule book for ritual practices. Although they were highly concerned with ritual purity, they emphasized ethical teachings over ritual for its own sake. 

Their opponents, the Sadducees, focused on careful adherence to the rules, mostly in Leviticus, for con-ducting sacrifices in the Temple. When Rome destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, those sacrifices became impossible and the point of view of the Sadducees became irrelevant to Jewish life. It was the Pharisees and the early rabbis who refashioned Judaism as a religion that did not depend on specific sacrificial practices in a specific place—a Judaism built around prayer, study, and mitzvot. 

Paradoxically, Christianity also has its roots in the rabbinic tradition, not in the rituals of the Sadducees. Over the centuries, however, the term “Pharisee” became a club used by Christians to beat Jews—often figuratively and sometimes literally. 

Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote about this recently in a column for the Religion News Service. He raised this issue after Mayor Pete Buttigieg used the term “Pharisee” to criticize Vice-President Mike Pence. Rabbi Salkin does not think that Buttigieg is anti-Jewish. 
He writes that the term embodies “subtle and unexamined religious perceptions—Judaism as a religion of law vs. Christianity as a religion of love; Judaism as a “separatist” faith” and that it is “so ingrained in the way that so many people think, that it has become unconscious.” 

I don’t think that we can eliminate this from almost two thousand years of Christian thought, but I think that we should speak up when the occasion demands it.
Sadly, however, the kind of hypocritical obsession with rules that it denotes still exists in Jewish life. There are so-called religious Jews who may keep strict kashrut and pray together three times a day, but who have no qualms about sheltering child molesters and domestic abusers, mis-educating their children, or cheating the government. 

Or those who vituperatively criticize other Jews. As (Orthodox) Rabbi Bob Carroll says, we should all be at least as careful about what comes out of our mouths as about what goes in. We may choose to ignore it when other Jews merely call us bad Jews, and usually that is best. But should we keep quiet about immoral or criminal behavior carried out in the name of Judaism? Sometimes we fear that speaking out would give fodder to anti-Semites. Yet if we are silent, are we complicit?

Ye and We

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