Thursday, February 23, 2012

Terumah: Finding Holiness in a Cinder Block

 If you didn't know Ohev Shalom too well, and you walked into our building for the first time, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that our building was constructed in the 1960s. It's not so much that there are hints everywhere, it's more like the whole building screams, "SIXTIES!!" Between the cinder-block walls, the ubiquitous dark wood, and the 'high church'-style sanctuary, I think it's pretty unmistakably the product of its time. Personally, I love our building, and I feel very much at home in our sanctuary. And the point I'm trying to make is not about whether the design is objectively 'good' or 'bad,' I'll leave that to personal taste. What I want to say is that our building - and arguably all buildings, or at least all houses of worship - tell a story about the people who constructed them.

There is no such thing as a 'timeless' holy space. In fact, I believe that part of what makes something holy and special is its connection to the era, people, and culture around it. Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about Shabbat as 'holiness in time,' NOT in space, which can evoke a sense of timelessness. And in some ways, he was right. Celebrating Shabbat has remained a constant, core value among Jews for millenia. However, it is our ability to interpret, reinterpret, and reinterpret AGAIN what Shabbat means to us that has truly kept it alive in our hearts, minds, and communities. There is a delicate balance between something being universal, and also unique to us right here, right now.
This week's Torah reading gives us detailed instructions on how to construct the Tabernacle in the desert (or as one of my Bat Mitzvah students describes it: a synagogue on the go!). Yet despite all these incredibly intricate and micro-managing specifications, we also know that in later Israelite history, the two Temples that would eventually be built in Jerusalem were NOT built according to these guidelines. God gave the Israelites specific instructions, but a few generations later (and then again a few hundred years after that) they went with their own designs instead. Why? Because they too wanted something that spoke to the culture and fashion of their time; that ol' Tabernacle was SO 200 years ago...
In our parasha, God speaks a very famous line: "Let them make me a Sanctuary, so that I might dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8). Is there only one way to build a sanctuary? No. Every house of worship is unique, and it should be unique, because it is telling a story. Ours tells a beautiful tale of the history of our congregation, and the Jewish community of Delaware County. We travel around the world visiting other synagogues, not so we can marvel at how they are identical to ours back home, but so that we can learn about their culture and their stories. Sanctuaries don't just contain the Presence of God; they also contain the presence of our people, our ancestors. And that truly fills them with holiness, and makes them 'groovy' places to pray!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mishpatim: A Slave to the World Around Us

How can you think outside yourself? Is it possible to take a step away from your own experiences - from your upbringing, your environment, your personal history, and your values - and view the world objectively? I think it's
a pretty daunting task, and sometimes it can even feel impossible. We are all products of this planet in a particular moment in history, and it's hard to shed that. Even the Bible betrays a worldview that is specific to its time in human history. And if we believe that God wrote the Bible, it is surprising to find it so tied to the issues of its day - for example, slavery - and unable to take a more universal approach. Then again, who really still argues that God wrote the Torah?

This week, I am taking my Torah commentary inspiration from one of the greatest rabbis of the past century, who died last week in Toronto. Rabbi Gunther Plaut was one of the leaders of the Reform Movement, and the author of a really phenomenal volume entitled, The Torah: A Modern CommentaryIn addition to being a book I
draw from constantly in my rabbinate, Plaut's commentary was also the first Judaica gift I received from my father, so it holds special sentimental value for me as well. Plaut reflects on the issue of slavery, featured highly in our parasha, Mishpatim. He writes, "The Torah treats the institution [of slavery] as an established fact of civilization and looks to its melioration rather than its abolition." The Torah knows slavery exists. It's just a fact of life (in the Ancient World), it ain't going anywhere. So rather than rail against it as amoral or cruel, it sets about 'humanizing' it, as Plaut suggests. It assumes you HAVE slaves; now the Torah works on teaching you how to treat the ones you've got.

Two things fascinate me about this observation. 1) The Torah is indeed a product of its time. The idea that slavery would be abolished was unimaginable to the Biblical authors! 2) Despite this, somehow it manages to begin the process of questioning the institution of slavery. Plaut points out that the Torah
is clearly conflicted about the slave being BOTH someone's possession, and a human being with rights of his/her own. In addition, the Torah indicates that female serfs have legal privileges as well; something that was surely revolutionary in its day! Perhaps most fascinating of all, Plaut explains that, "the Bible does not have a specific word for the totally unfree person." The Hebrew word for 'slave' is 'eved.' This word, however, is also used to describe us, every Jew, who is a 'servant of God,' 'eved Adonai.' The same word is also employed by individuals wishing to seem humble or deferential, introducing themselves to one another as, 'your servant.' The term 'eved' never really refers to someone who is totally destitute, who has no chance of ever rising above her/his lowly station. This too is a remarkable statement about status and social mobility.

This whole business of slavery in the Torah teaches us two things, though they may be at odds with one another. On the one hand, we shouldn't be so intolerant of people who don't change fast enough for our liking. We are all products of the world we grew up in, so it IS
hard for some people to accept new technology, environmental sensitivity, or even major issues like gay marriage. Even the Bible was somewhat stuck in the mindset of an ancient society, and it accepted slavery's existence without ever pushing for its abolition. On the other hand, change is possible. The world accepted things that are unthinkable today, when once they seemed as natural as breathing air. If we believe in a cause, we shouldn't ever be discouraged, just because someone tells us it's never been done, or people are fine with the status quo, or why fix something that isn't broke. Change can happen.

One final thought. I believe the Bible was written by human beings like you and me. That's why slavery is just accepted as a matter-of-fact. Yet throughout the text,
something doesn't seem right. A quiet, but firm objection nags at you, and leaves you very uncomfortable with slavery as a whole. To me, that is God. Subtly, almost invisibly, God leads us away from our misguided practices, and shows us a better way to live. You can't always see it, it's purposely understated, and you might even think you got there on your own. But you didn't, not entirely. You were brought there, and thank God for that. Literally!

Photos in this blog post:  

1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber and a mystery hand...

2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, and his second edition copy of the Plaut commentary.

3. CC image courtesy of Vectorportal on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of Ava Weintraub Photography on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of on Flickr

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yitro: What are You Eating, and What's Eating You?

Last weekend, Ohev Shalom hosted Dr. Jordan Rosenblum as our annual Scholar in Residence. In short, he spoke about Jews and Food, covering subjects like the history of separating milk products from meat products, the taboo against eating pork, and the relationship between Jews and non-Jews surrounding food. I haven't had a chance
to poll too many people yet, but my sense is that Jordan rustled a few feathers, and surprised some people with his straight-forward presentation of the sources. I think some people were left with one, major glaring question; "So why should I (still) keep Kosher?" That is indeed an excellent question. Frankly, I'm glad people were thrown a little, because I think this opens up an opportunity for us to have a serious, frank, and emotional conversation about how and what we eat. 

This Shabbat, I would like to talk with you about eating. If you're around, please consider joining us for services on Saturday morning, where we will have an open (and potentially heated...) discussion, which I am calling, "What are you eating, and what's eating you?" I will, however, save you some
of the suspense by telling you right now, I'm not going to try to convince anyone to keep Kosher. I really don't think that's my job. Some people might disagree with me, and if you're one of them, I apologize. I'm just not going to do it. I want you to love being Jewish. If you want that to include Kashrut, GREAT! I will give you some sources, I'll offer helpful tips, I'll even be your personal cheerleader! But if you aren't interested, neither am I. Am I really here to make people feel guilty about what they do? I don't think so. But if that's true, then what's the point, right? What the heck are we all doing here, and why is the Ohev Shalom kitchen still strictly Kosher?!?

Jordan spoke a lot about having 'a food ethic' last weekend, and I think this might help guide our conversation moving forward. For me personally, and for us as a synagogue, our food ethic is rooted in Kashrut. Rabbi Brad Artson, in his book, "It's a Mitzvah!", writes that "Kashrut harnesses the act of eating to our identity, our community, and our morality. For thousands of years, the dietary laws have
created a potent bond, solidifying Jewish identity, forging a link with Jews throughout time and across a globe, and strengthening family and friends into communities devoted to a more humane order on Earth." What does your eating say about you? You don't have to keep Kosher to make a statement, but I think it's imperative that you DO think about how and what you eat. And remember, some people keep Kosher and still ignore the essential values of ethics, cleanliness, and sustainability, so just keeping Kosher, doesn't mean you're off the hook! What is your personal food ethic?

In this week's Torah reading (I bet you were wondering if I was ever going to get there...), Moses receives the Ten Commandments. By the way, none of the Top Ten speak about keeping Kosher... Just after God finishes presenting the first ten mitzvot to the Israelites, and is getting ready to continue speaking, the people ask Moses to be their intermediary. "You speak to us...
and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die" (Exodus, 20:16). Hearing the voice of God directly is too much for the people, they need a buffer. Moses - and later the prophets, the ancient and medieval rabbis, and today our modern rabbinic authorities - need to 'distill' the laws from their overpowering original. Yes, it's true what Jordan told us; the origin of separating meat comes from one, measly verse about cooking goats in milk. But so what? Why should that be the end of the story, and why should it shock you to know that our rabbis took liberties with the text as our legal code grew and evolved?!

Our laws and practices today do not come straight from God. But however you choose to eat, there should be a Divine spark, a dash
of holiness and ethics, flavoring every bite you consume. And if you disagree with me, have questions or strong opinions, or just want to talk about this some more, please join us on Saturday morning... and after services, we'll eat!

Photos in this blog post:  

1. Image courtesy of Frances Sheehan and Congregation Ohev Shalom

2. CC image courtesy of Sam Felder on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of Yandle on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of David Blaine on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of MrVJTod on Flickr

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beshallach: Carrying the Weight of Glory

This Sunday, either the New York Giants or the New England Patriots will achieve great glory and acclaim in Superbowl XLVI... and I couldn't really care less about
either team. I'll probably still watch it(or parts of it, at least), but as an Eagles fan, I can't say this game holds much interest or excitement for me whatsoever. Nevertheless, there is glory to be won on Sunday, because the Superbowl is one of our most glorious and glory-filled events of the year. And it serves as a good lead-in for me, because this week I would like to talk to you about - you guessed it - glory.

It's a term that caught my eye while reading through our parasha. As the Israelites depart Egypt, and begin to Exode (can you make 'Exodus' into a verb?) into the desert, God decides to devise a cunning plan. In order to punish Pharaoh one last time, God will make Pharaoh believe the Israelites are lost and bewildered in the desert, and will trick him into pursuing them to the Sea of Reeds. As we
know, the Israelites cross through the sea on dry land (thank you very much, Charlton Heston), while Pharaoh's charioteers all drown as the walls of the sea come crashing down upon them. By doing this, God tells Moses, "I will be glorified through Pharaoh and all his army" (Exodus, 14:4). And this notion, that God will be glorified through defeating Pharaoh, is repeated again in verses 17 and 18. 

I found it striking, and somewhat jarring, that God could sound so vindictive, and almost (heretical, I know) sadistic. It is as if God has been using Pharaoh as a punching bag, and is now ready to deal the final blow. To try and understand this a bit better, I did a little research. Two commentaries - one by Rabbi Gunther Plaut and one by Everett Fox - both highlight a fascinating linguistic connection on this very issue. The word for 'glorify'
in Hebrew is 'Ee-kav'dah,' which comes from the root 'k-v-d.' Interestingly, the word 'harden,' as in "God hardened Pharaoh's heart," is 'kaved,' from exactly the same root! And that root, on its own, evokes a sense of 'heaviness.' The Plaut commentary cites a rabbinic midrash (story) that imagines God saying to Pharaoh, "You sinner! With the same word with which you prove yourself recalcitrant I will glorify Myself." Indeed, for the first five plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and only with the final five does God 'take over' and push Pharaoh over the edge. 

I want to mention one additional commentary on this subject, actually written by a teenage cousin of mine, Toyam Cox. Toyam points out that Pharaoh was the one who first took away the free will of the Israelites by refusing to let them go. God then took away Pharaoh's free will, as both a reciprocal measure, and as punishment. I thought it was an intriguing juxtaposition. And I can't say that I've lost any sleep over Pharaoh getting bullied around; I think he mostly got what was coming to him. I am, however, still left with great discomfort over the suffering of the rest of the Egyptians, as well as their cattle who were struck by one of the plagues (cows never hurt anyone!), and the horses who perished along with the chariots in the sea. What I find perhaps most disturbing is my original point, about God's malicious desire to be 'glorified' through Pharaoh's misery.

What do we make of 'glory'? Who gets to decide what is glorified and what isn't? I personally feel that the Torah is once again challenging us to reassess our understanding of nuance-free terms like 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' 'heroes' and 'villains.' Nothing is ever so simple; not for us, not even for God! 
What one person considers a victory, another considers defeat, or even disaster. Certainly there's a whole segment of the population who see nothing glorious in the violence of pro-football (weirdos...). Once we leave black-or-white solutions behind, and delve into a world filled with shades of grey, I think we begin to have more honest and open conversations about humanity, life, and how we can work together to improve the world. An important, but 'heavy,' task indeed.

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of RMTip21 on Flickr   

2. CC image courtesy of on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of jontunn on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of kasthor on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of miss_rogue on Flickr