Thursday, September 19, 2013

Happy Sukkot

Today is the first day of Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Booths. This is my most favorite holy day.

What I love about Sukkot is that it celebrates both the fecundity and fragility of life. We gather in these makeshift booths [sukkah (singular), sukkot (plural)] open to the elements to remind ourselves not only of the wandering of our people in Sinai (something that may or may be historically true), but also to affirm the fact that there is no real defense against the uncertainties of life. During Sukkot we take up the truth of the first two of the three pigs in the Three Little Pigs folktale (yes, I realize the irony of using pigs to illustrate a Jewish point). They built their homes out of straw and twigs, very similar to the building materials of a sukkah. The Big Bad Wolf’s huffing and puffing is the wildness of life and its capacity to blow down our most precious hopes and dreams.

Most of the year we pretend that the third pig who build his house out of bricks was the wise pig who knew how to establish surety and certainty in his life. Any look at the results of the flooding in Colorado, or the mass slaying in D.C. reminds us that bricks alone cannot protect us. In fact nothing can protect us. And yet…

Within this fragile booth we celebrate the harvest. In the midst of fragility—the sukkah—we celebrate fertility—the harvest. How cool is that?

During the week of Sukkot we gather with family and friends, both living and dead, to share a meal in the sukkah, reminding ourselves that the best way to survive life’s uncertainties is with the love of family and friends.

And, to make sure we don’t miss the point, we study the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most honest books ever written about the nature of life and how best to live it. From Ecclesiastes we learn once again that everything is hevel, as insubstantial as the morning dew, and that the best way to live in a world of such profound impermanence is to plant joy in its midst by eating and drinking moderately, finding meaningful work, and cultivating two or three deep friendships.

Whether or not you are Jewish, this is a powerful and important message. Whether or not you build or visit a sukkah this week, the meaning of Sukkot is worth pondering. Whether or not Bible study is your thing, read the Book of Ecclesiastes (let me suggest my own translation and commentary: Ecclesiastes Annotated & Explained, and The Way of Solomon since most English translations miss the point).

Hag sameach Sukkot, may you awake this week to the message of Sukkot and the joy that comes with embracing it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Morning Gospel

“You want ta know th’ truth of Christianity? You ain’t gonna find it in this church. Damn, son, you ain’t gonna find it in any church.”

Murphy, my goldendoodle, and I were walking through town this morning, and stopped to greet a man standing out front of one of the many churches on Main St.

“No sir. No church preaches Jesus ‘cause Jesus was a revolutionary and churches is for keepin’ the people down. What do Jesus say? The meek will inherit th’ earth. You see any meek runnin’ things in this world? What do Jesus say? Th’ last will be first? You see any last folks in charge? What do Jesus say? God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. You see God’s will working in this world? God’s will is that th’ poor and th’ widow and th’ orphan and th’ powerless be uplifted and treated with dignity. Where’s that happenin’ in this world? No, sir, the church don’t preach Jesus they preach Christ, th’ god of th’ rich who wants your money and your time and your energy so you are too tired and bamboozled by dreams of heaven to make a revolution here on earth. They don’t preach the Jesus of the Jews, they preach the Christ of Rome.”

Rome? Like the Catholic Church?

“A’course not! Rome as in th’ Roman Empire that occupied and exploited th’ poor in ancient Israel. Sure Catholics is part of it, but Protestants too, and Jews and Muslims and any religion that takes your money and your dignity and gives it to the rich all the while promisin’ that you’ll get it all back plus interest in th’ world t’ come. You know what they teach in church?”

Love? The Gospel of Jesus?

“Hell, no! Churches is teaching th’ gospel a surrender. Churches is teachin’ that Jesus wasn’t never talkin’ ‘bout this world but some pie in the sky world. So let th’ rich run this world, and know th’ poor’ll run th’ next world. This is th’ greatest scam in th’ history of man. And don’t think it just be Christians who be teachin’ this. I had a rabbi tell me once that rich people are usin’ up their inheritance in this world and will have nothin’ left in th’ world to come. You believe that? I don’t. This kinda teachin’ is just ta keep th’ poor from startin’ a revolution. But it’s commin. It’s commin’. Nice dog you got there.”

And the man walked on. Seriously. I love this town.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Different View on Gun Control

I flew back to Nashville from Aspen, CO this morning, and fell into a conversation with my seatmate about the current state of the US economy. “I’m the 1%” he told me. I’m not, I replied.

“Where do you stand on gun control?” he asked. I favor it.

“Me too, but you shouldn't be. Anyone among the 1% who isn’t in favor of gun control is a fool. The same with anyone in the 99% who favors it.” And why is that?

“Because this country is on its way to a civil war: the 1% versus the 99%. Right now the 1% runs the country and controls the military. The military is our jobs program for the poor. When the 99% rise up against us, we will use the army against them. What's happening in Syria will happen here. Some among the military will turn against us, but most will see that their future lies with serving us rather than killing us. If we allow the civilian poor to arm themselves it will make it that much harder to defeat them.”

I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say. So he just went on.

“Capitalism is a culture of winner take all, and winners rig the system to keep winning. When the losers finally catch on that they can’t win, they'll take to the streets and bring their guns with them. Of course you can’t stop them from owning some guns, the Second Amendment and all that, but I would restrict them to the most primitive hunting weapons, and not let any military grade or military style hardware get into their hands.”

What about a revolution via the ballot box?

“Never gonna to happen. We own the media, the media tells people what to think. Liberal media, conservative media, MSNBC or FOX, it doesn’t matter. I’s just circus, just distraction. Media figures and politicians are all millionaires. The difference between them is an illusion designed to keep the 99% believing there is hope that one day they too can be rich. Never gonna happen.”

Your view sounds very dystopian. “Dystopian for you, utopian for me.”

As I sat thinking about what I had just heard, I couldn’t help noticing that this one percenter was stuck in the same cramped tin can I was. It gave me hope. But probably not enough.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Symbol of Hate?

I passed a pick-up truck on the highway yesterday that was covered in Confederate Battle Flags. A large sticker featuring one of these flags read, "It's not a symbol of hate; it's part of our history."

Does this make sense?

Imagine a German driving a car covered with Nazi swastikas coupled with the saying, "It's not a symbol of hate; it's part of our history." Does this make the symbol any less objectionable?

On the other hand, the Star of David is a symbol of oppression to millions of Palestinians. Can I excuse this with the notion that "It's not a symbol of hate; it's part of our history," or do I have to find another symbol that is somehow neutral? And is there such a symbol?

Please don't jump on the "moral equivalency" soap box.* That isn't my point. I am NOT equating Nazis and Israelis. I am asking the question when, if ever, is a symbol beyond the pale; when, if ever, do I let other peoples' reactions to my beloved symbols influence my use of those symbols?

*I know saying this won't stop some of you from going there anyway, but please try. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

B'nai Mitzvah Redux

According to a new Reform effort the key to stopping parents from quitting the synagogue once their kids become Bar and Bat Mitzvah (“Repositioning Bar Mitzvahs to End Drain.” Wednesday, September 4, 2013) is to get “the children to spend less time learning Hebrew and memorizing prayers, and more time working as a group on sustained ‘social action’ projects.” Seriously? If my goal is feeding people (the example offered in the article), wouldn’t the thousands of dollars I spend on synagogue membership be better spent actually feeding people? I’m sorry, but if you want liberal Jewish kids to stay Jewish you have to focus on the Jewish not the liberal.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah aged children are natural revolutionaries. If you want them to be Jewish you have to show them that Judaism is revolutionary. Teach them about Abraham shattering his father’s idols. Teach them how Abraham’s argument with God over Sodom was a battle of justice against power, and Abraham/justice won! Show them how living Jewishly is an ongoing struggle against idols and for justice.

Show them how keeping kosher—boldly redefined as lifting all their consuming to the highest ethical, moral, and environmental values they can muster, and then striving to go even higher—is a way to battle the consumerist culture and corporate class system that is destroying persons and planet. Show them (ala Levinas) how unplugging from the Internet on Shabbat and joining with family and friends to play and talk face to face is an act of radical resistance against the facelessness that defines American life and blinds us to the exploitation and demonization of the Other. Show them (ala Levi Strauss) how authentic Torah study teaches them how to deconstruct all texts (from newspapers to advertisements) to see what is really being said. Teach them that Jews question, doubt, and argue, and that these are our David–stones used to topple the corporate and statist Goliaths that turn all beings into commodities, and show them how to use Jewish tradition to free themselves and others from the narrows of Pharonic slavery and into the terrible desert of freedom, and toward the messianic redemption of a global promised land.

Giving our children less Judaism isn’t going to help their parents agree to pay for more dues. Parents will pay for those things that add value to their children’s lives and futures. If Judaism can’t do that, not only should parents leave, but all of us should get out as well.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Rosh HaShanah Queries

I received an emailed list of questions regarding the High Holy Days this morning. I share my answers with you here as an invitation to you to offer your own.

Why do so many Jews attend High Holy Day services when so few attend weekly Shabbat services?

Guilt. Most Jews do little that is overtly Jewish (keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, building a sukkah, etc.), and slogging through the High Holy Day services is a way of saying, “I’m still Jewish.”

Why do so many Jews—even those who attend High Holy Day services—find them boring and tedious?

Because they are are boring and tedious.

Would people find the services more compelling if they understood Hebrew?

No. Knowing what we are saying makes it even harder to say it. Most Jews—even many rabbis—don’t believe a word of what they’re saying.

Why are Jewish services so long?

Because we never found a good editor. Not only is our liturgy one prayer heaped upon another, we then repeat so many of them as if no one were paying attention in the first place. This has nothing to do with attention, of course, and everything to do with ancient Temple sacrificial practices, but the result is that confessing the same sins or singing the same praises over and over reduces both confession and praise to mere babble.

Would people find the High Holy Day more interesting if they understood its kabbalistic or mystical meanings?

Kabbalah depends on a mastery of Torah and Talmud that most Jews cannot even imagine. To skip Torah and Talmud and jump to Kabbalistic texts would require a dumbing down of Kabbalah to the point of inanity. Mysticism isn’t an alternative to the liturgy but an experience of the nonduality of God that is supposed to emerge from praying the liturgy. To pretend to the former when we have no facility with the latter is just silly.

What do you think is the real problem behind Jewish lack of interest in services?

Jews. We are among the most educated people on the planet. We helped create modernity—Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Buber, Einstein, Friedan, etc.—and yet when we walk into a synagogue we are asked to pretend that we are living in the 12th century rather than the 21st century. The real problem with synagogue services is that they speak to a world we have long since abandoned. As the service drones on we become robots programmed to rise and sit and read responsively and make a fetish out of Torah. We become a community of the living dead shrouded in tallit (prayer shawls), imitating dead ancestors, and wondering why we feel so dead ourselves.

If you could change three things about High Holy Day services what would they be?

1. The theology. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dead, and adding Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel to his epitaph does nothing to bring him back to life. We need the God of Spinoza, Einstein, and Kaplan instead: God as reality, God as process, God as source and substance of all being and becoming, God as that power that makes for human happiness, justice, compassion, wisdom, and love, and not the Father King of our medieval ancestors.

2. The liturgy. We have to invent a liturgy that reflects what we do believe, rather than recite a liturgy in which we can’t believe. Someone should go through the High Holy Day liturgy and a) identify the key passages and phrases (Al Cheyt, Unetanah Tokef, Kol Nidrei, Shofarot, etc.) that are unique to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, b) recast them in a modern poetic form (both in Hebrew and, in my case, English) that reflects a modern, egalitarian, non­–xenophobic, and scientifically accurate understanding of life, and c) shape a contemplative liturgy around them that relies heavily on silence and great music (not responsive readings and camp songs).

3. The length. Even with a good 45 minutes devoted to Torah discussion (instead of sermonizing), the service shouldn’t last more than two hours.

Any last thoughts?

One: we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the High Holy Days is, and then determine if that purpose is relevant to us, and, if it is, reinvent a High Holy Day experience that actually matters. Personally, I would offer a ten day Days of Awe intensive rooted in serious self-reflection, meditation, musar, forgiveness work, chanting, etc. that would actually promote teshuvah (returning to God), tikkun (engaging life with godliness), and tzedakah (opening our hearts and hands to the needy). I experimented with this when I was a congregational rabbi and I think it worked fairly well. Today I am retired, but that doesn’t stop me from offering advice to my colleagues: be bold!