Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Four Jewish texts in response to the Election of 2016

I write these words as an individual, who serves a Jewish community that is diverse in many ways, including national origin, race, sexual orientation, and political perspective, among other points of diversity.  I don’t have the illusion that everyone in our community will agree with what I am writing below, but it is my hope that you can find at least one thing with which to agree.  

My tendency at times of joy and at times of difficulty is to look to traditional Jewish writings for wisdom and solace. Here are 4 traditional Jewish texts that are helping me through this day.


Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 2nd c. CE), 4:10:
 ואל תאמר קבלו דעתי, שהן רשאין ולא אתה  
“[Rabbi Ishmael taught:]  Don’t say to someone else, “You must come around to my opinion!”  That’s up to them, not to you.”

Western democracy may be young, but the idea of majority vote and (in some circumstances) majority rule has been a hallmark of Jewish tradition for thousands of years. The book of Exodus tells us, אחרי רבים להטות “Incline yourself after the majority.” (23:2)  And this passage from Pirkei Avot, probably intended to describe a dispute among judges, reminds us that minds are changed only through persuasion, not through coercion.  It is a great blessing to live in a country that is characterized by the orderly transition of power between adversaries, where we are educated to grow accustomed to the notion that we will often disagree with our government.  If the result of yesterday’s election was surprising to me and to most pollsters and journalists, it’s a sign that there is a significant segment of the United States population that we don’t understand beyond an inaccurate caricature.  As Secretary Clinton said in her concession speech today, those who disagree with President-Elect Trump “owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”


Psalm 146:
עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט לָעֲשׁוּקִים נֹתֵן לֶחֶם לָרְעֵבִים ה' מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים. ח ה' פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים ה' זֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים ה' אֹהֵב צַדִּיקִים. ט ה' שֹׁמֵר אֶת גֵּרִים יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה יְעוֹדֵד וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים יְעַוֵּת.
God upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry; God sets prisoners free.  God gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and loves the righteous.  God watches over the foreigner   and sustains the fatherless and the widow, and frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The core of Jewish ethics is support for those who are most vulnerable: those who are oppressed, impoverished, unjustly imprisoned, those who are ill and disabled, those who are bereaved and without protection, and those who are foreigners.  This is the way that the Jewish community has always strived to be -- even when Jews lived under the dominion of ruling authorities who felt otherwise.  Embracing these values is part of what it means to live a traditional Jewish life.  These will remain core Jewish values for the American Jewish community.  It is my sincere and deep hope that the President-Elect will embrace these values as president to a much greater degree than he has embraced these values as a candidate.  If he does not, I have confidence that the American Jewish community will agitate for the fulfillment of these values, as Jews have done so frequently throughout our history.


(Moses Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c.), Mishneh Torah, Laws of Temperament, 2:7)
ואמרו שכל הכועס--אם חכם הוא, חכמתו מסתלקת ממנו, ואם נביא הוא, נבואתו מסתלקת ממנו.  (הלכות דעות ב:ז)
Our sages said about those who are full of anger: if they are wise, their wisdom departs from them. If they are prophets, their prophecy departs from them.

For those who find the outcome of the election to be troubling, now is a time to be gentle with each other, as nerves are frayed and tension is high.  Many of us (myself included) may need reminders over the next few days to walk and drive more slowly and carefully, to react more slowly, and to avoid taking out stress and anger on loved ones and random people.  Crises often bring out our best impulses but sometimes (in the short term especially) our worst tendencies.  This may be why Maimonides cautions so strongly against expressions of anger even for causes we regard as righteous (and, of course, to the angry person, anger is always righteous):  anger corrodes and corrupts our souls and causes our wisdom to dissipate.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov (19th c. Ukraine)
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to fear at all.
In these famous words, it is hard for me to believe that Rebbe Nahman of Breslov was really suggesting that people should never fear.   Fear is an essential emotion -- and fear plays a vital role in keeping us safe.  Those who have a realistic sense of fear are much safer than those who are never afraid.  My sense is that Rebbe Nahman was identifying that fear is a distorting emotion. In fact, (in my opinion) irrational fear of the other is exactly what led so many to make the electoral choice they made.  To me, this quotation by Rebbe Nahman is the Jewish version of the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Whatever happens, we do better when trying as hard as possible to lead with other emotions rather than fear.  

We must be vigilant, especially in identifying the warning signs of the pausing or dismantling of the government’s system of checks and balances on presidential power.   We must be activists on behalf of groups that are an important part of the American mosaic that have been threatened by the President-Elect when he was a candidate. But we should remember that the United States has been through a lot of difficult times in its long history, and the Jewish people has been through even more difficult times in its much much longer history.  The current moment calls for vigilance and activism -- as every moment does.  The current moment does not call for despair -- as no moment does.






Thursday, October 13, 2016

Guilt, or Shame? (Yom Kippur eve 5777 / 2016)

Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur eve 2016 / 5777. I am so grateful to my friends and colleagues Rabbis Abby Sosland, Beth Naditch, and Andi Merow -- and the writings of Rabbis Shoshana Friedman and Jonathan Sacks -- for influencing this sermon.


One of my favorite stories about Yom Kippur is the story I heard from Rabbi David Woznica, who is now a rabbi in the Los Angeles area.  He is fond of telling the story of how, when he was a child, his parents -- mistakenly -- informed him that the tradition was to strike one’s heart during the Al Chet - the Yom Kippur confessional prayers - only for the sins that one had actually performed.  Throughout his childhood and adolescence, every Yom Kippur, he would read the list of sins in the Mahzor, the High Holy Day prayerbook, and make a judgment for each one whether he was guilty of it that year, or not.  “We have sinned against you by speaking recklessly” - yeah, I did that one. “We have sinned against you through bribery” - no, not that I can think of. “We have sinned against you through arrogance” - okay, a little.  “We have sinned against you through impure thoughts” -- yeah, I had a couple of those.


Until one year, when he went to a more traditional synagogue for Yom Kippur and during the Al Chet, as he was choosing judiciously when to strike his heart, he noticed that the guy next to him was striking himself for EVERY SINGLE LINE!  And he couldn’t believe it!  What a jerk! How could he possibly have had TIME to do all those things!?


But then, of course, he was shocked to notice the guy on the OTHER side of him was ALSO striking himself for every single line. And the person in front of him.  And behind him.
For God’s sake, what kind of clientele does this synagogue attract?!  And finally he came to the conclusion that perhaps his parents hadn’t accurately transmitted the tradition to him.....


So I counted. Someone who is present in synagogue for the entirety of Yom Kippur and participates in the Vidui - the confessional - every time it is recited, and strikes their heart every time that it is traditional to do so, will end up striking their heart 660 times.  That is a lot of heart-striking.  No wonder Jewish tradition gets the reputation for being really focused on guilt!

(Though I should note parenthetically: my sense is that you are much more likely to think that Judaism is all about guilt if you only come to synagogue on Yom Kippur.  Because yom kippur really DOES focus on guilt.  But if you came to synagogue only on Tu Bishvat, you would think that Judaism is all about environmental consciousness.  If you came to synagogue only on Purim you would think that Judaism is all about partying and drinking.  Each Jewish holiday has its own themes, and you get the full emotional spectrum and full experience of Jewish values only if you experience the entire holiday cycle.)


But the fact remains that Yom Kippur is focused on all these ways we have failed, all these mistakes we have made - this year, and throughout our lives.  Lists and lists of ways we have not measured up.  For those of us who make Yom Kippur a genuine introspective process, not just going through the motions, there is no way to go through this process and not emerge with a sense of our own brokenness, with a sense of the ways that we have failed. Which prompts the serious question: In our achievement-oriented world, in our world in which we strive for excellence and even perfection, where NO ONE wants to admit to mistakes, in our judgmental world where we are often quick to blame others, where we know that most of us are judging each other all the time - why would we go through this process?  What does Yom Kippur do to our sense of self-worth?  How could this possibly be a psychologically and spiritually healthy thing to do?


One of my guides for answering this question this year is Professor Brene Brown, a psychologist and social science researcher in Houston.  You may be familiar with her from her best-selling books and her lectures, including her TED Talk lecture that remains one of the five most popular TED talks ever, Viewed an incredible 26 million times.  Which is all the more amazing when you realize that what Professor Brown studies and talks about is something closely connected to the themes of Yom Kippur - though it’s the thing that no one is supposed to want to talk about - which is shame.  The feeling that ALMOST everyone has, at least from time to time, that they are unworthy - that they don’t measure up to what they are expected to be - that they don’t deserve at least some of the blessings in their lives.

Shame is such a difficult part of life to confront that Brown has spoken about how even though she had studied intensively about shame in other people for 6 years, she was still not able to truly confront her OWN sense of shame at her own failures and her own vulnerability.  In fact, shortly after recording her remarkably successful TED talk but before it was put on line, she felt bad about various mistakes she had made during that presentation and fantasized about breaking in to the TED offices to prevent the video from being uploaded.   And this ended up influencing the choice of the title for one of her books - which is I thought it was just me! - but it isn’t.


I am pretty sure Brene Brown is not Jewish- but she is quickly becoming one of the wise guides to what happens on Yom Kippur. And the first step to understanding Yom Kippur, through the lens of Professor Brown, is to understand the difference between guilt and shame.


Linguists and psychologists and theologians have pointed out that even though many people use the words guilt and shame interchangeably, there is a world of difference between them.  “Guilt” is the feeling we get when we know that something we have done does not measure up to what we feel we are supposed to do. And guilt can be uncomfortable. But ultimately guit is a productive feeling that often encourages us to do the right thing, to make reversals and changes in our behavior.


And you might have noticed a similarity between the word ‘guilt’ and the word ‘gelt.’  ‘Gelt,’ of course, does not only refer to chocolate coins for hanukkah but is the Yiddish word for money, and is also the Old English word for money.  When you owe someone some Gelt, that’s a problem you can resolve - if you have the Gelt to repay.  And similarly, when you feel guilty, that’s a problem you can resolve - by doing something to relieve the feelings of guilt.  Apologize.  Make restitution. Resolve to do better the next time.


But guilt is different from shame. Because shame is a feeling that something I have done makes me unworthy.   Or in Brene Brown’s formulation:   “Guilt leads you to say ‘I did something bad.’
shame leads you to say ‘I AM something bad.’ ” She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”


MOre than 70 years ago, scholars started to describe some cultures as ‘guilt cultures’ and some as ‘shame cultures.’ [1]   Ancient Greece, for example, was a ‘shame’ culture. If you did something wrong in ancient Greece, you could be publicly shamed, deemed to be an unworthy person because of your unworthy deed, and there would be very little you could do to rehabilitate your image.  So what would you have to do? - First of all, you have to hide.  Try as hard as possible not to be found out.  And if you are found out - evade responsibility. Make it someone else’s fault. Don’t admit your mistake unless you have truly exhausted every other alternative.  If you have made a mistake, you are going to be disgraced for a very long time.  Though there does remain one recourse if you are shamed:  You can try to publicly shame everyone else so you don’t look quite as bad by comparison.  Homer’s Iliad includes various examples of great warriors being shamed by each other for their mistakes.  They tend to respond not by apologizing but by retaliating -- by shaming each other in return.  In a shame culture, the act of apologizing for something is regarded as deeply shameful.

So that’s what happens in a ‘shame culture.’  But what about a ‘guilt culture’?  We can joke all we want about how Jewish parents are masters at inducing guilt and about how Judaism is a culture of guilt -- but according to this understanding, Thank God for guilt!  Because that means that our misdeeds are not essential characteristics of us; rather, they are aspects of ourselves that can change.
Teshuvah, or repentance, relies on a guilt culture. Yom Kippur would be inconceivable in a shame culture.  And Yom Kippur is a necessity in this guilt culture that we call Judaism.


It appears that it took a while for Judaism to become a guilt culture.   It’s no surprise that in the Torah, the very first time people make a mistake, they have an instinct to run and hide. Adam and Eve start out thinking that the world is based on shame.  Shortly after being created, we read that ויהיו שניהם ערומים, האדם ואשתו; ולא, יתבוששו “Adam and Eve were both naked and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2)  But then they eat from the tree of knowledge, and God calls out to them,  and they realize that they made a mistake.  Now they certainly feel shame.  Not guilt, but shame.  And so they hide.  And of course the hiding doesn’t work, and God finds them.  And Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent -- with no one taking responsibility for their actions - Just as you would expect in a shame culture.

And no wonder Adam and Eve run and hide and blame others to try to get out of their shame.   
An opinion raised in the Talmud suggests,  צערא דגופיה עדיף ליה טפי מבזיוניה: -- given the choice between shame and physical pain, many people - not everyone, but many people - would choose the physical pain -- because that is how bad shame feels, and how strong the yearning is to become free of shame.  (BT Sotah 8b)


But over time, Judaism changes into a culture focused not on shame but on guilt - a culture in which we are encouraged to feel bad about our misdeeds, not because those misdeeds make us bad, but because our misdeeds remind us that we are good -- and that we can do better.
(And by the way - this is also a reason why the ethics of speech is so important in Judaism, and why we are generally bidden not to circulate embarrassing stories about people, not to let their past misdeeds follow them throughout their entire lives.  Because if my mistakes are always going to adhere to me no matter how sincerely I have repented, then we’re no longer in a culture of guilt. We’re in a culture of shame.  You may have seen some recent writings that suggest that the Internet’s exceptional memory is pushing us towards a culture of shame rather than guilt.)


Now that doesn’t mean that shame is all bad.  There are people in the world who truly have no capacity to feel shame. And these tend to be people who have no capacity for empathy, who have no particular desire to adhere to social conventions. We call them ‘sociopaths.’  (My sense is that you are probably not such a person.  Because if you are, Yom Kippur is not for you - because what’s to atone for?)  So having SOME sense of shame is essential.


But having too much shame - that’s the problem that faces far more of us. Brown goes on to describe some of the real life consequences of guilt and of shame.  “Shame,” she says, “is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders.”  And --  even more importantly -- for all that we like to make fun of guilt -- “Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.”


Imagine what it means when someone says the words ‘you should be ashamed of yourself.”  Those are words you might have heard repeatedly this year.  (Maybe this week!)  If you define ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ the way we have today, then saying “you should be ashamed of yourself” is something that should be reserved for the most weighty of deeds that no amount of expiation can heal.  No one, or at least almost no one, should be actually ashamed of themSELVES.  Hopefully we all feel guilty for what we have done.  And hopefully we know how to apologize and make restitution and move on. But being ashamed of your SELF? My HOPE is that most of those who use language like this are just not sensitive to differences between the word ‘guilt’ and the word ‘shame’ - and what they really MEAN to say is “you should feel GUILTY about what you have done.”   My FEAR, though, is that some of those who say things like “You should be ashamed of yourself” really don’t understand that we’re all better off if we live in a culture of guilt, and not of shame.


The difference between guilt and shame could also be described as a difference between focusing on verbs and on nouns. In the language of the Vidui, never do we refer to ourselves as ‘sinners’  - rather, we say ‘anachnu chatanu’ - we have sinned.’  It’s a thing we did, rather than our essential nature.  


There is actually a way in Hebrew to refer to a quality that is part of someone’s essential nature. Which is-- stick a final Nun at the end of a word.  For example, a gozel גוזל is someone who has stolen something, but a gazlan גזלן is a habitual thief. A meshaker משקר is someone who tells a lie, but a shakran שקרן is a habitual liar. And it is interesting that these final-nun words don’t make it into the core parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy. [2]  But when it comes to describing God - we call God mochel ve-soleiach  מוחל וסולח - the one who forgives and pardons - but we also call God solchan u-mocholan  סלחן ומחלן -  the one for whom forgiving and pardoning are part of God’s essential nature.


But no matter how hard we try to cultivate a culture of guilt, clearly we all continue to contend with the corrosive effects of shame.


Pirkei Avot tells us - לא הביישן למד  lo ha-bayshan lamed - a person experiencing shame cannot learn.  Now usually that line is understood as meaning that learners need to be willing to make mistakes, to take risks, and to risk the embarrassment of getting things wrong. And those who insist on being perfect all the time and never showing their vulnerability will not learn as much.
But maybe this line has a more weighty, even tragic meaning:  when we feel shame,  our tendency is to hide.  And every social problem, and every personal problem, is likely to get worse when it is covered up and treated as something shameful and secret.  It is likely to get worse when we hide.   And thus one who is prone to shame will get stuck and will not be as able to learn the life skills necessary to get unstuck.  Which means that the first step of getting free from almost ANY other problem that we face -- is getting free from shame. [3]  (Clearly this applies when we experience shame for things we have done, that we have chosen -- and just as much when we experience shame for things that have happened to us and are not at all connected to choice.)


And here’s where I should note that there is interesting literature about how men and women respond differently to shame.  Lately Brene Brown has especially been studying shame in women and has been directing her message to everyone but especially to women.  Which is why I want to take some time to quote someone who teaches about shame and vulnerability in MEN and directs his message to everyone but especially to men.  And you all know who that is.  Bruce Springsteen.


Whereas I know Springsteen’s most popular hits, I confess that I’m not a fan to the level of a lot of people in this room - this being New Jersey and all.  But so many people who I admire and respect deeply are quite fanatical Springsteen fans.  And it appears that what makes him truly not just good but one of the greatest Is a particular mixture of fine musicianship, boundless energy,
And a profound openness to emotion and vulnerability.  And Springsteen gave a particular gift to the world when he wrote his memoir this year and was so open about his struggle with depression for which he has sought psychiatric treatment for the last 30 years.  Reminding the world --in case there was any doubt - that this is what a real man looks like - or can look like -
White t shirt, jeans, bandanna, motorcycles, fast cars, and psychiatric treatment for depression.


And even the metaphors that he uses in interviews and in his book to describe depression are Springsteen-esque.  He says:  “...whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you.I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”  Springsteen understands his vulnerability and is a better person for it.  And what a gift he gives by sharing this fact with the world and removing some of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness.


And what’s true of mental illness is true also about addiction. Financial difficulty. Professional difficulty. Health problems. Abuse. Relationship issues.  Whatever it is, shame is going to make it worse.


Professor Brene Brown has some wise things to say about how we ought to choose judiciously with whom we should share those details of our lives about which we feel the most shame.  Not everyone has the right to hear your shame story.  But someone should, because sunlight is a surprisingly good disinfectant for shame.


One of the messages of Yom Kippur though is that you can look at each and every person here today and know that they are going through some intensely difficult struggle that you know nothing about, no matter what the veneer of confidence and control you see on the outside.
And the Yom KIppur prayers encourage us to see all our misdeeds as verbs rather than as nouns -
As what we have done rather than who we are.


One of the great pleasures I have in serving this community is spending a lot of time with preschoolers. And we teach the preschoolers about the Vidui, believe it or not, even though they don’t really have a lot to atone for yet. We tell them:  What the adults do on Yom Kippur is they are knocking on the door of their hearts.  Saying ‘wake up, heart! Open up, heart! Remember to say ‘I”m sorry,’ heart!”  That might not be the traditional explanation, but it is clearly the explanation that resonates today more clearly than interpretations about imposing harsh punishment on ourselves.


Four-year-olds having limited attention spans, that’s where we stop.  But if their attention spans were longer -- I think this is what I would say:


“When we say the vidui, and people strike their hearts - This is God knocking on your heart. (Or if you don’t like that, it could be you knocking on your own heart.)
God is saying - I know you’re in there - open up!  
I came to visit you. I didn’t come to see your perfect life.
I didn’t come to see your resume. I didn’t come to see your perfect veneer of control.  
All those things are not YOU.  and I came to see YOU. because YOU are the one I love.
About those mistakes you made this year? - Yes, you made them. And you can do better, and I can help you do better.  But that won’t happen until you let go of any shame you are feeling.
Because those mistakes are NOT part of your essential nature.
And you know why?
Because -- God continues -- I am סלחן ומחלן solchan u-mocholan - forgiveness is part of my essential nature.
I am ארך אפיים ורב חסד erech apayim ve-rav chesed --  I am full of generosity and lovingkindness.
Sure, feel guilty for the things you have done.  But NEVER feel ashamed of your SELF. Because that self of yours is made in the Divine image.


I am knocking on your heart this Yom Kippur.
Will you open up for me?
Will you let me come in?




==================

[1]  [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the work of Ruth Benedict, http://www.rabbisacks.org/the-scapegoat-shame-and-guilt-achrei-mot-kedoshim-5775/

[2] See the discussion in Seligmann Baer, Seder Avodat Yisrael, p. 412. There is one significant exception - the word avaryan עבריין, as used in the introduction to Kol Nidrei - but it is in a line that was added to the Yom Kippur liturgy in the 13th century, after much of the rest of the Yom Kippur liturgy was in place.

[3] My colleague and friend Rabbi Abby Sosland discusses this idea at length in her wonderful ELI Talk (kind of a Jewish version of the TED Talks), making an analogy with the Talmudic concept of tovel ve-sheretz be-yado טובל ושרץ בידו  - one who immerses in a mikveh while holding something that is ritually unclean.  http://elitalks.org/shameless-judaism

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Truth, Justice(s), and the Jewish Way (and the American Way)": 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah 2016 / 5777

(Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on the second day of Rosh HaShanah 2016 / 5777.  Links, references, footnotes, etc will be added later. )

This is my vote for one of the most surprising quotations of this Jewish year.  Some of you may recognize it.


He was a person of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober [colleague] laugh. [He was a person of] …. ‘energetic fervor,’ ‘astringent intellect,’ ….‘acumen,’ and ‘affability,’...  It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.
These are some of the words with which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg eulogized the man she referred to as her ‘best buddy,’ Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, after his death this past winter.


Yes, the friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg - also known as Nino and Notorious RBG- has to be one of the most unlikely friendships in history.  Ginsburg has been without any doubt the most liberal member of the court, and Scalia one of the most conservative, and the dean of the conservative school of jurisprudence in the United States.  And yet these were two people who dined together, shopped together, vacationed together.  Went to the opera together.  In tribute to their mutual love of opera, a law student wrote an opera that set selections from their opinions to music.


Scalia was once asked how he could be friends with GInsburg with whom he disagreed on EVERYTHING  - and I mean EVERYTHING.  His answer, which Ginsburg quoted in the remarks that she gave while standing by Scalia’s casket as his funeral, was this: “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people…Some very good people have some very bad ideas.”


It seems so quaint today -- like a throwback to a previous era when there was more civility in the public square - when those who had even vehement disagreements figured out a way to retain some level of peaceful interpersonal relationship.


I was recently reminded of a similar phenomenon in Jewish tradition, as I was talking with someone who had expressed interest in conversion to Judaism. I asked, as I often do: At what point did you start to think about conversion to Judaism?

This person said:  It started a couple of years ago.  I had been together with my partner who is Jewish for many years, and I was accompanying my partner to synagogue for the high holidays, at the synagogue where my partner grew up.  They were talking about how they had this brand new High Holy Day mahzor that they were using for the first time. (So let me add parenthetically that I when I heard this I got excited, because I knew that this person was probably talking about Mahzor Lev Shalem, the high holiday prayerbook that is probably in your lap right now, And I was involved in its production,  I got excited to know that somehow this Mahzor played some role in someone’s story that led them to contemplate conversion to Judaism. I was wondering - what was it about Mahzor Lev Shalem that became a powerful invitation to convert to Judaism?)
The person continued: “The thing that struck me about the Mahzor was I opened to a random page, and I looked at the commentary, and it said something like, “no one knows exactly what this verse in this passage means; it could mean this, or it could mean this, or it could mean this.’
And I thought: that is so refreshing compared to the faith in which I was raised, and my picture of what I thought a religious faith was like.  It made me think:  maybe my partner’s religious faith could become mine.”

I thought: this is surprising. What this person identified as an especially appealing characteristic of Judaism was not connected to ANY Jewish content whatsoever, but rather was connected to the WAY that the Jewish people engage in the conversation.  The content of Jewish tradition of course is important, but the medium is part of the message.  Part of the message of Judaism is this particular surprising way that we’ve been tolerating disagreement and dissent for at least 3000 years, maybe more.


Of course, not all Jews find this way of being and communicating to be  so appealing.
It’s even the punchline for some of the best known Jewish jokes.  Like the Jew shipwrecked on a desert island who builds two synagogues: This is the one I go to, and this one is the one I would never set foot in.  Or “Two Jews, three opinions.”  But it’s no joke.  I enjoy showing people the layout of a page of the Talmud, with blocks of text indicating a wide variety of different voices on the page, to permit us to see just how much disagreement there is in traditional Jewish text - that it is, in the words of British Rabbi Lionel Blue, not a book of holy answers, but a book of holy questions, even holy arguments.


It is specifically this quality of Judaism that may be exactly what the United States, and the world, need to learn from at this critical moment in our history.

"Who tells your story" (first day Rosh HaShanah 5777 / 2016)

(Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh HaShanah 2016 / 5777.  Links, references, footnotes, etc will be added later.  Many thanks to the USH Choir for learning to sing the song so beautifully at the start and end of the sermon!)



Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives who dies who tells your story
I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you


You have just witnessed the most self-indulgent thing a rabbi could possibly do during a high holiday service.  Some of you recognized that our choir just sang a little snippet from the musical Hamilton - And I, of course, appropriated for myself the role of George Washington. (This, by the way, is where we can distinguish the people who are new to this synagogue from the ones who have been here before.  The people who are here for the first time are saying, “ I can’t believe the rabbi just referred to Hamilton in a sermon!”  And the people who have been here throughout the year are saying, “I can’t believe the rabbi just referred to Hamilton in a sermon -- again!’)


There are any number of themes on my mind as we approach this new year on the Jewish calendar - war and terrorism, refugees and migrants, race, the election.  And don’t worry, we will get to some of those over these high holidays, some even today.


But one of the significant cultural phenomena of this year clearly was the musical Hamilton - this unlikely musical about America’s first treasury secretary - that has earned Tony awards, Grammy awards, the Pulitzer prize, the National Archives achievement prize, even a MacArthur genius grant for its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda - and is on pace to become one of the most outstanding hits in the history of the American theater.


First Lady Michelle Obama declared it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”  There was even a minor news story last week about how Prime Minister Netanyahu took time out of his schedule on his brief trip to New York to see it about 10 days ago.  Clearly it is being described as something more significant, more transformative, than a theater experience usually aspires to be.


In case you are wondering:  No,  I haven’t seen it yet. I have other financial priorities right now --  like sending my children to college.  But I have, however, spent some time listening to the music and thinking about why Hamilton has become the cultural phenomenon it is.


I chose these words that we sang in part because they just seem tailor-made for Rosh HaShanah.
For example: The line “You have no control who lives, who dies’ - of course this echoes the somber theme of Unetaneh Tokef, probably the very heaviest part of the High Holiday liturgy, describing the metaphor of the Book of Life into which we are inscribed, reminding us that our fate does not lie entirely in our own hands, as we don’t know what will come to pass in the coming year - But through Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah - repentance, prayer, and good deeds, we pray to have the opportunity to transform the harshness of our destiny.


And the line ‘I know that greatness lies in you’ - reflects the sentiment of Psalm 8 designated for Rosh HaShanah: ותחסרהו מעט מאלקים-  we are “little less than divine.” We remind ourselves that as human beings we are capable of remarkable things and have the power to transform the world for good - if we use that power in the right way.


And the line ‘history has its eyes on you’ - these are such appropriate words to welcome a new year, especially in an election year when the conseque
nces of the election could be quite momentous for the future.  History has its eyes on all of us. (Well maybe not New Jersey so much, but certainly History has its eyes on Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.)


But actually the part of this excerpt I am most interested in is the line about telling stories -- the line that asserts, ‘You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.’