Thursday, September 27, 2018

Spitting Image

Spitting Image
         Once again, in a cemetery, I thought about a pre-school.  It was our annual Kever Avot Graveside Memorial Service, held at both of the historic Jewish cemeteries in St. Thomas, on the Sunday in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. And in some ways, there is nothing like a scheduled, non-funeral based visit to old graves to get you thinking about Jewish journeys, where we have come from and, perhaps, where we are going.
         Sadly there was almost no attendance at the older site, the Savan Cemetery, closed at near capacity in the 1830’s, and badly in need of restoration.  Still, it tells an amazing story.  There are gravestones in seven different languages there.
         There were more people at the “new” site (opened mid-1830’s?), in Altona.  And it was there, looking at a mixed and multi-racial group, older folks visiting family members they remembered, and toddlers hearing tales about people they never met, that I thought about the founding families of the synagogue.
         The names of those nine Sephardic families are found…everywhere on this island.  And around the world.  They are of now faces of every color, bearers of every creed, on the rolls of every church.  Soon, I want to organize an evening service, or a weekend of events, called “Roots and Wings,” for every person on these islands who have Jewish roots of some sort, or who are interested in Judaism, or who have heard of it, or who can spell it…  It will be, I think, a long list of invitees.  Whether many or few will be interested I don’t know; we can only find out by trying.
         But looking back to see who we are and where we might go is kind of a thing these days.  All it takes is spitting in a cup, or some other form of sharing yourself… with the commercial DNA-testing labs offering such services.
         I saw that a colleague spoke about 23andMe during the High Holy Days this year.  What a great topic – at least for Ashkenazic Jews.  Part of the information you get, apparently, is what percentage “Ashkenazic Jewish” you are.  I think I read that Sephardic roots are simply characterized as “Middle Eastern,” rather than Sephardic Jewish.
         Whatever the science behind the distinction, this raises interesting questions.  And those questions lead to more questions.
What is a creed, and what is a culture?  How much of who we are is about where we are from?  How will knowing the past impact us in the present?  Does our genetic history matter for more than medical purposes – and if so, why, and how, and to whom?  And: look at how many white-bread with mayonnaise eating middle Americans are discovering something about themselves they never knew, this newish Jewish part of them?  What will they do with the information?  How will this change them?
And, most chillingly, I often wonder this: what drove so many away?  Indifference, oppression, opportunities?  Or was it, perhaps, a closed-circle within our own community, cliquishness, making someone feel “other” and “out.”  Some of the stories I have heard here center around grandparents who did not feel welcome, or wanted, and who found a spiritual home elsewhere.
I don’t want to go too far down that road.  I sometimes am astonished that Jews find it so very easy to set aside a 4000-year old history and dynamic culture and intellectual inheritance not because of spiritual questions (although there is some of that), but because somebody (sadly, often a rabbi) looked at them the wrong way.  Yes, we make mistakes, we act imperfectly, and we turn each other off.   I have staked my own work, my passion, my devotion to the notion that, for most of us, and most of the time it is deeply worth it… to get past the flaws and bumps and bruises, however they may hurt.
But it is time for those “inside” the Jewish orbit to redouble or triple our efforts… to be more open, to be more welcoming, to reach out, to break up our cliques and widen our circles.   Because this is not just about liquid in a cup, or information in an envelope (or email).  And whether someone comes back with results that are 85% “Jewish” roots, or none at all… the ability to even ask indicates fluidity and curiosity, about identity and connection and community.
Science impacts society.  The physical affects the spiritual.  Just look at the religious changes brought about… by the printing press.  Or the phone.  Or the car.
People today are using new techniques to ask old questions.  They are looking back at an internal yesterday.  It is a perfect moment to build… a better tomorrow.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Contradictions and Consistency: Three Things I Believe That Don’t Hold Up -- Part One: Why Be Different?

          This is the first time in over a month I have written something essentially unrelated to the hurricanes!  May there be more such occasions soon.

Have you ever met someone who was completely consistent?  Someone who lived their lives with no obvious logical lapses, or ways in which their arguments or beliefs did not always add up?  On occasion, I believe I have met such individuals.  A few of them.  And, as I recall, they tended to be extremists, of one form or another.

          It’s not that I don’t think we should try.  Rank hypocrisy is… not rare, but still distasteful. It’s a good thing to think through what we believe, and to test it to see how it holds up – against reality, and against everything else we say we stand for.

          So it bothers me to realize… that there are three things I believe which don’t quite hold up.  There is, within my positions, a contradiction.  And yet, somehow, I believe these things anyway.

          What are my inconsistent positions?  (At least, the ones I am aware of and live with.)   One relates to spirituality.  The other to community.  And the third, somewhat connected to the second, to identity.  The first is about God and Judaism, universalism and particularism.  The second is about ways in which Jews are connected to one another.  And the third is about, well, Jews for Jesus.

1.   If God is one and everything is connected why do we promote being different? 

          The most important foundation of my own spirituality, and my understanding of divinity, comes from the Sh’ma.  It is the basic statement of the oneness of God, and with it the unity of the universe.
          Now, to my regret, as I have come to understand as an adult, this is probably not what the Sh’ma meant originally.  Despite what we all learned in Sunday school, in contrast to the solemn proclamation of some kid in Cleveland that he will now recite the “washword of our face” (because, after all, what is a watchword, and what kid can say the word “faith”?), many Biblical scholars challenge the idea that these words were first meant as any kind of pure declaration of monotheism. 
In contrast, they say, the Sh’ma did not actually deny the existence of other gods.  This was not a theological statement about ontological reality.  Instead, it was a way of connecting to a community, or reading oneself in.  These words were…  a loyalty oath.  And they were not about monotheism, but  some form of henotheism, or monolatry, both of which meaning that while there may be many gods… we ourselves have only one!  Not: “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal our God – the Eternal is One,” but:  “Listen, you Israelite! YHVH is our god… and only YHVH.”
But, okay, fine, so the central understanding of Jewish origins I had as a child was wrong.  I can live with that.  It remains the case that these words came to be understood as a proclamation of the unity of God, and it is in this way, and their connection with particle physics, that they speak to me.
So, what is the Nobel Prize in Physics, waiting to happen?  What is the formula which, once worked out, will guarantee the one who solves it a place in the pantheon alongside of Einstein?  It is the Grand Unified Field Theory, the idea that all the basic forces of the universe can be described... by a single set of mathematical equations!  Even if… even if the math only applies… for the first billionth of a second of the life of the universe.  And even if it will take twelve spatial dimensions for the equations to work!  (As I understand it, that is what cosmological string theory is all about.)
But think about it.  If this is true, even for a limited time, and in a way beyond what we can ordinarily imagine… then what we are saying is that, with the mystics, everything really is connected.  That all we see as separate is really only a superficial difference, that every “thing” around us is merely energy congealed in a transient, temporary form, but basically all beating to the cosmic pulse of the universe, all part of a divine symphony which we can but faintly hear.  That which seems to be separate and distinct… is merely a matter of faulty or limited perception.  Anything” is really “every” thing,   And borders and boundaries and distinctions and definitions are malleable, permeable, deceptively described, and temporary at best.
I believe that about life, the universe, and the way the world works.  My basic understanding of berakhot, of blessings, relates to the idea that a berakha is a way of opening our eyes, to help us see the divine, the sacred, the underlying awesome connectedness of all, in moments which seem to be mundane and discreet and distinct.
So, fine.
But then: how come so much of Jewish life is about… making distinctions?  And separation?  And being apart?  This is kosher, and this is treif.  This is Shabbat, and this is the rest of the week.  This is holy, and this is not.  This is the land of Israel, and this is outside.  This is a Jew, and this is not.
In a universe of connection, why the boundaries?  If reality is universal, why celebrate particularism?
And if you say that separation is just an aspect of a broken world, an unredeemed sphere of existence, a phase before we step back into some cosmic Kabbalistic Unity of All… really, still, why would the distinctions matter?  Is all of our effort to maintain our identity, promote our community, is all of it just a holding pattern, some kind of exercise in differentiation while we wait for the real time of ultimate togetherness to come along?  Why be Jewish, why be anything individual, if all definitions will ultimately fail and all differences fall in the end?

A “universal” faith (the word “catholic” actually means universal) in fact anticipates this oneness, but in a hegemonistic fashion.  The world will be one…when everyone becomes just like us.  But Judaism truly does not envision this kind of sameness, this urge to merge.  Maybe it is just hard to picture, but I don’t think many Jews actually anticipate or even desire the whole world becoming Jewish.  We are fine, even in traditional settings, with the notion that there are different paths to God.  So I circle back to my own dilemma.  If God is one and everything is ultimately connected, why be different?
I can fumble a response, approximate an answer.  But this remains one of the central spiritual questions of my life.  What’s your answer here?

And that… is the first of my three things I believe, which have a contradiction within them.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Tale of Two Boats

A Tale of Two Boats
Parashat BaMidbar;
Tenth Grade Graduation
May 26, 2017

         We have fled from Pharoah, and we have fed the priests.  The sea split, the waves were walls, we crossed through the water.  Exodus is behind us, Leviticus is over.  Now we wander.  Bamidbar.  In the wilderness.  The Hebrew name comes from the first significant word of the book.  The English name, however, reflects the content.
         Numbers.  We open by taking stock.  By looking around.  With a census.  By drawing a border, with division and distinction, who counts -- and who does not.
         It is with numbers that I want to begin this night, numbers and anniversaries.  Looking backwards but with an eye to what is going on around us, this night I want to share with you… a tale of two boats.
         It was 1939, and the world was dark.  On the 13th of May, 937 men, women and children, refugees all, set sail from Germany, bound for Cuba.  They had paid, they had papers, the way was clear.  The SS St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana sometime between May 26 and May 27, exactly 78 years ago today.

         But by the time the boat arrived even the passengers could tell there was some kind of problem.  Resistance to refugees in Cuba, along with possible antisemitism, had flared, and forced authorities there to revoke their word, refuse entry to all save the 30 non-Jewish passengers, and attempt to return the boat to its port of origin.
         Calls were made, telegrams sent out.  The St. Louis approached the Florida coast, close enough to Miami, it is said, that the desperate souls could see the city lights from the deck of the ship.
         The frantic calls failed.   On June 6, 1939, the United States, knowing there were hundreds of children on board, fully aware of their likely fate, refused the pleas of the St. Louis and the appeals of Jewish agencies advocating on their behalf.  (This, by the way, despite a ready solution close at hand, an easy sail away.  Just a short while earlier, the legislature of a United States territory had passed, and the sitting governor had signed, a decree welcoming European refugees.  Using its statutory power, the State Department summarily overrode the bill passed by the parliament of the United States Virgin Islands.)
         In the wake of the American decision, but also acting independently, dozens -- dozens! -- of other nations followed suit.  Canada said no.  Canada!  As did... every single nation in Latin America.   Every one.
The St. Louis did indeed return to Germany.   One passenger slit his wrists and threw himself overboard as the ship turned around.  Some eventually escaped -- to France, or to Belgium, only to fall into the hands of the Nazis again.  To England, as did the one woman I know who, as a child, was on board that ship.  Some escaped but hundreds, including, of course, many of the children, hundreds died in concentration camps.
*    *      *
The war is over, and the world has changed.  But now in France, from whence the phrase "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."  Seventy years ago, in July of 2017, from a port in the south of France, another boat set sail.
It was an old packet steamer once known as the SS President Warfield.  It began its life currying cargo back and forth right near here, in between Baltimore and Norfolk.  It served both the US Navy and the Royal Navy during the war.  And now the cargo it carried was composed of what some would call illegal aliens, and others undocumented immigrants.
Leon Uris and Paul Newman made this boat famous, with a bit of embellishment and creative license, but the true tale is amazing enough.  The boat, renamed Exodus, left Europe with 4515 displaced persons, all Jews, including 655 children.  On July 18 it came tantalizingly close to port in British Mandate Palestine, only to be rammed by British patrol boats, boarded and, physical resistance overcome, with casualties and fatalities, towed into Haifa.  The would-be immigrants were forcibly removed, placed onto different boats and sent back to France – where they refused to disembark and held out for 24-days.  They were out of rations.  There was a heat wave.  There were less than 20 toilets for the close to 5000 human beings.  France finally refused the boats entry so the British, in their infinite wisdom and with no sense of irony, tugged the boats off to… Hamburg, in occupied-Germany, removed everyone by force, and consecrated them all… in camps.
But the press was present, and no one assaulted any of the reporters.  At least as far as I know.   Eyes were open, and the world was watching.  Pressure finally forced a change in policy.  Those who managed to escape from Europe but were caught en route to Palestine – at least they would now be held in a new Displaced Person camp in Cypress, rather than returned to the killing fields of their former homes.   Repatriated to countries which never viewed them as patriots in the first place.
Cypress was… horrible.  But it was closer to their destination.  And, eventually, even though hundreds had to wait until after May of 1948, most of those on board the Exodus and in Cypress found their way to a new home, in the land of Israel.

To our Tenth Graders I have said, and I will say again now in the last time you will hear it from me… I know… I know that you hear, or will hear, when you go off to college… I know that you will hear a great deal of criticism of Israel.  Some of that criticism I share; it is justified, it will be based on values we share, things we all care about.  But some of it comes from somewhere else, a place of hate, a distortion of history, a denial of Jewish rights and even an attempt to eradicate our existence.  In the midst of that cauldron I remind you, even now, even seven decades later, I remind you of the tale of two boats. 
And I share with you an image, a sign seen just after your arrival, when you get off the plane and board a bus and leave behind Ben Gurion International Airport.  The sign reads: “Ein Lanu Eretz Acheret.  We have no other land.”  Or, to put the matter even more bluntly: we have nowhere else to go.
We who are at home here in America, yes, this was and can be and still  is a great country, with lofty ideals and a human experiment in freedom and opportunity which is unfolding still.  But remember.  Remember the St. Louis, and remember the Exodus.  And know, as Jews, that there has to, there just has to be a place where our fate does not depend… on the good will of others.
But there are other lessons to be learned on this night.  We will remember, this Memorial Day Weekend, and later tonight, in the moments before Kaddish, we will remember the sacrifice of men and women who died in service of this country.  The "ultimate" sacrifice, it is called.  What, then, did they die to defend?  What are the values and visions, the things that make this country great that they were willing to offer themselves in its defense?  And what does this mean for us?

         My friends, in America, and in Israel, in headlines and in a hidden revolution taking place almost out of sight while we are distracted and watching out for other things, in policies and in attitudes we see hearts and minds and doors and gates closing before our eyes.  If there a lesson from history, if the past calls us and values bind, then we must link our history and memory with what is unfolding around us now.  We must join our dreams and journeys with those of others who are, figuratively and sometimes literally, in the same boat.
         “Great win,” is what the leader of our country just said, unprompted, about the victorious Congressional candidate in Montana.  Talk about an assault on the first amendment!  And, steps away from here, goons and thugs in the direct employ of the elected dictator in Turkey initiated a violent attack on peaceful protestors and then hid under the protective cloak of diplomatic immunity and a collegial sense of shared values and mutual appreciation between their leader and ours.  Violence in word spilling over to violence in deed.  The suppression of dissent, the quashing of questions, the closing of borders.  Where does it stop?  What will it take?  Who will step forward to draw a line, and somehow say in way which will work: Dayyeinu.  Enough is enough is enough.  As Israelis say: “ra’inu et a seret hazeh; we have seen this movie before.”
         On June 6, the exact anniversary of the United States’ refusal to admit the refugees on the St. Louis, HIAS – the organization once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, will be holding vigils across the country as part of its Welcome Campaign, drawing attention to parallels between the refugee crises of yesterday and today.  Such vigils will take place at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, and outside of the Capital building.  Watch for more information in the week to come.
         And on June 7, in a follow up to questions asked by our own young people, including some of our Tenth Grade students, I have arranged for our congregation to host one of the area’s first ever Jewish-Muslim Teen Talks and Kosher-Halal Iftar Dinner Discussions, in which  8th- through 12th graders in our congregation and other synagogues can get to know Muslim peers, not just as classmates they come across in school, but in terms of sharing each other’s sense of their faith and identity, their hopes and dreams.  To our young people who are here tonight, I hope many of you can come to this really important evening we have planned.
         And for all of us: what are we going to do to make sure that this country, our home, and that Israel, our homeland, live up to the values and ideals we believe in?  How will you move from the sidelines and as spectators, to being the actors and shapers of the world we want, we know, we need it to be?
         In eerie and haunting imagery, in works which echo now anew, the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amicha writes:

בטרם השער יסגר
בטרם האמור יאמר
בטרם אהיה אחר...

Before the gate is locked and shuttered
Before every word is said and uttered
Before I have become something different --
Something other.
Before the mind has lost its way
Before the possessions are packed and put away
Before the pavement hardens --
Here to stay.
Before the apertures of flutes are sealed
Before the laws of nature are revealed
Before the vessels break --
and can’t be healed.
Before decrees and edicts are imposed
Before the hand of God is closed
Before we rise to leave this place –
and go.
         Bamidbar.  Numbers.  A census, and a taking stock.  Who is in, and who is out?  Who counts, and how?  And what will you do to welcome home those who wander in the wilderness?
         Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Torah of Traffic: Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Driving

          If God is One and everywhere at once, then surely there are spiritual lessons to be learned from the most ordinary and everyday acts in our lives.  Indeed, I believe, there is great Torah, great teaching to be found in the act of driving.
          This Torah of traffic comes to us in many forms.  Clearly there is a sense of the blessing we might say upon getting our license.  And then there is the very different blessing -- a prayer and a plea -- we would say on the occasion of... one of our children getting a license!  

          I am sure that all of you have your own insights on this topic. Here are a few of mine – along with one recent realization that I think is a great way to approach the coming High Holy Days.
          First: the great decision.  To stay, or to switch?  How we handle lanes and changing lanes is a significant act.  It tests loyalty, patience, a sense of playing the odds.  It balances being in the moment versus the goal of getting someplace a few seconds faster.  And, in fact, physics offers some assistance here.  I once heard that an extensive scientific study of traffic flow reveals an essential equality in outcome to which lane one is in.  And, actually, it may be that those who do crazy things or aggressively shift lanes or stay in the lane they know will disappear in 500 feet… actually help the flow of movement in the end.
          Second: state of mind, inner peace – and geography -- all affect our behavior on the road.   I cannot find the original study, but I remember a report which indicated that how long someone waits to honk their horn at a slow car in front of them varies a great deal by location.  And studies continue to prove that our environment affects our aggressiveness.  How we feel, who we are, and where we are… matters.  Place matters.  Maybe those who claim, for example, that there is something “different” about being in Israel… are on to something after all.  (Although driving, aggressive behavior on the road and the sound of horns are not the immediately obvious indicators of any usual sense of the sacred.)
          Third: driving is an entire social construct in which inner and outer worlds meet.  Soon I will write a separate column about a Stop sign, and what happened when a road was closed off in one direction, but the original stop sign remained in place – even though there was now no possible safety reason for the sign to be there.  What I mean, now, is this: think of all the things, the fixed and the moving parts, the whole view you have when you are driving down the road.  The thing is, though, that no one else has that same picture.  Because there is something missing from your picture, that everyone else can see.  And that something – is you.  We see everyone else’s behavior, and evaluate it.  But unless there are obvious reactions often involving hands and symbolic gestures, we often have no sense at all of how our own driving impacts those around us.  We see out more clearly than we see in.  Just as, in group relations, we often generalize from the very worst examples of the behavior of others, and consider typical only the very best about ourselves.
          Finally, though, what I want to focus on comes back to the act, and art, of changing lanes.  I was so frustrated the other day, in a place where I merged from the right but had to exit left very shortly after that… when no one would let me in.  Signal on, intent obvious, I almost caused an accident behind me because everyone else had to rush forward instead of simply letting me slide in front of them for a short while as I made my way across the lanes.  The words I kept thinking, with increasing intensity, were: “let me in!”

          Here, then, is a powerful lesson for the Days of Awe, and for any way in which we build a community.  We have to be there, and be aware… and we have to let each other in.
          Yes, where you are going is important.  But so, too, are the needs of others.  As Hillel put it centuries ago: 

אם אין אני לי, מי לי?
 וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני?

Im ein ani li, mi li?
U’ch’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
(Pirkei Avot 1:14)

          Driving, and the High Holy Days, and an ethical life, all require a balance, between assertiveness, and grace; between self and other; between yield, and go.  To get anywhere safely, to accomplish anything of value, we need to know where we are going.  And we need to let each other in.
          That is the Torah of traffic, the ethics of the everyday and a lesson for the modern world, from a very ancient tradition.