Thursday, April 25, 2019

Torah and Tradition, Calendar and Community


Why is the ending of this holiday different from all other endings? 
Reflections on the end of Pesach and the choice of reading this Shabbat

        The twin dilemma facing thinking, caring liberal Jews this weekend is not merely a matter of laziness and convenience.  Instead, the issues of how long to observe Passover, and which Torah portion to read this Saturday morning, are actually about values, beliefs, and deep attitudes towards science, knowledge, affinity, loyalty, custom and community.

         First, on the question of calendar.  I have written elsewhere about the basic mechanism of how the Jewish calendar works.  In that essay “Why are the Jewish Holidays Never on Time? (And Other Quirks of the Jewish Calendar),” I explain the tradition of adding an “additional” day to some holidays in the Diaspora, outside the land of Israel,  in order to cover all of the possibilities of when a holiday might fall, based on whether the previous lunar month had been one of 29-days or 30-days.
         But we know, now, how long the months are.  The lunar calendar has been calculated scientifically, and accurately, for nearly 2000 years.  We do not need to depend on two witnesses, huffing and puffing and running with their reported sightings of the sliver of a new moon, before an official tribunal in the Jerusalem Temple. 
In some ways, observing the “extra” day is a slap in the face of science.  It declares human knowledge to be less a part of our experience than custom and the way we have always done things.
I can understand, often, the impulse to choose metaphor and myth and mystery over a strictly scientific and mechanistic view of the world, in storytelling and ritual in general.  I understand the pull and power of tradition.  But adding a day was done because of uncertainty.  When the ritual decision is about human knowledge (finding out when the new month really begins), it seems to me not merely silly, but… certainly stubborn, and almost defiant… to just keep using the corrective mechanism, even when it is clearly no longer needed. 
I do observe seven days of Pesach, as Biblically mandated, and as it is observed in Israel.  I will happily have challah after Shabbat services tomorrow night, and bread and other leavened food during the day on Saturday.  I do so with no qualms or reservations… none… save one.
It is this, as I have also written about in the past.  It is… increasingly difficult… to find liberal Jews who actually and carefully observe seven days of Passover.  When I was growing up, even unaffiliated and otherwise barely observant Jews avoided leaven on Passover.  We learned who else was Jewish at school not only from who went to any synagogue, but also who showed up with a matza sandwich for lunch, those years when Pesach did not overlap with Spring Break.  It was a unifying, widespread experience of solidarity.
But now, it seems, more and more people view the whole setting aside of chametz for the entire holiday as an option, and they opt out.  I am shocked by few things, certainly not by gambling going on in this establishment.  But I am shocked – shocked – when I see Jews eating bread during Passover.  For all that Reform Judaism stands for freedom of choice… this was not one of those things we meant!
So the question of community looms large for me here.  Is there, then, still a seven-day observant critical mass sufficiently large enough to create that sense of… well… community.  There is something to the… buzz and excitement… of that moment of breaking Pesach, that first bite of bread.  It is meant, I think, to be a shared experience. 
If your observance of Passover lasts a day and a half, you don’t get that feeling, that longing, that… true satisfaction of the return to bread after a full week. It is, actually, a pretty powerful moment. The only thing that could get me to observe Passover for eight days… would be the complete lack of others to share the solidarity of that ending with me, after seven.
This is a dilemma I face every year.  So far, I am hanging on, to the liberal and, in my view, more rational observance, in support of science and knowledge and the idea that a religion can grow and adapt and change.

But then there is the question that comes up only some years, only when the first evening of Passover begins… on a Friday night.  And that is: what Torah portion do we liberal Jews read… the following Saturday morning?
So here is the issue.  If Passover is eight days, then the last day of the holiday is a special reading.  As it happens, traditionally, when the eighth day of Pesach falls on Shabbat, that reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17.  The end of this section (Chapter 16) refers to the three Pilgrimage Festivals, including Shavuot and Sukkot, but beginning with the observance of Passover.
If Passover is only seven days long, however, then we have a challenge.  For Jews in Israel, and for Reform Jews outside Israel, this Saturday is a “regular” Shabbat.  (Note that we face the same issue when Shavuot begins on a Thursday night.  Since Reform Jews and Jews in Israel observe Shavuot for only one day, the following day and day after are also a “regular” Shabbat.)
So what’s a liberal Jew to do? We don’t think this Saturday is a holiday.  We do think it is a bit odd that the Torah reading cycle is “out of sync” for up to a month and a half, between Israel and the Diaspora.  We want to follow what we think is right.  But we also think it is weird if a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in our synagogue is reading a different Torah portion that someone in a Conservative synagogue down the street.
Here, I believe the usual practice (and certainly mine) has been a kind of split decision.  To maintain what we believe, we might well read the “next” weekly Torah portion this Saturday (which happens to be Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30).  And then we would read Acharei Mot again the following Shabbat.  We choose, by doing this, to reflect our beliefs – but also to remain in the same rhythm and flow of readings with other Jews around us. 
Or, we might read part of Acharei Mot this week, and choose to study part of the traditional reading, or even other readings associated with the holiday that we have not had a chance to tackle (Song of Songs, for example, which is traditionally read on the Shabbat in the middle of Passover or, in years such as this one when there is no intermediate Shabbat, on the morning of the seventh day of Pesach).

All of these things seem like arcane details and insanely ritualistic decisions of interest only to rabbis and a few pious perfectionists in our communities.  As I said at the outset, though, these choices really do reflect something deeper.  What is our attitude towards knowledge?  How do we weight that against the call of custom?  Do we feel the tradition as inertia or a comfort?  What choices do we make out of a rational spirit, and which ones are influenced socially, by a desire for cohesion, or under perhaps out of peer pressure?
And, finally, who is our “community?”  Who are our “fellow” Jews, and how much do their choices matter to us?  Do we do what we want, or are we constrained even to some degree, by that sense of solidarity.
Which comes down to: who am I, in the world?  With whom do I stand?  And how, and why?
Seen in that light, these are not trivial considerations at all.
Happy Pesach.  And a good end to Passover – whenever you break it!

Friday, February 08, 2019

What Comes First? An Exploration of Identity


         For some time, I have been personally struggling with a question about Jewish identity.  The topic is complicated, controversial and, in addressing it here, my intention is to promote thought and conversation.  I reserve the right to change my mind, about what I say in this column!  And, in what I consider to be among the holiest words in the English language: “I might be wrong.”
         Maybe it was prompted by all this rhetoric of “America First” – knowing full well that the phrase comes loaded with baggage, echoes of its isolationist and antisemitic roots in relation to both World Wars in the 20th century.  Or the old game we played in youth group: “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?”  Which is the noun, and which the adjective?  Which the modifier and which the core? Which could theoretically change, and which is simply who you are?
         I believe in Jewish unity.   I do believe, somehow, at some level, that, as a Jew, I have something in common with a Yemenite-born taxi driver in Israel, or a Charedi (ultra-Orthodox Jew) who does not consider what I do to be Jewish… something that, actually, I do not have in common with a non-Jewish neighbor. 
         Now, this is a very controversial statement.  Among other reasons why it is so "out there" is that it is really not obvious.  Clearly, culturally, often politically, and in every usual measure of lifestyle and values, what we share with neighbors who are similar to us in every way except for faith is very deep.   What ties us together as Jews, that thread of Jewish commonality I am referring to…  is very hard to see.  It pulls, it tugs, but still we can’t quite grasp it when we look for it.  It is not belief (some Jews are atheists, many others agnostics, some are deeply pious), it is not shared values (some Jews are... never mind that).  So what is it?
         One more caveat – a very important one.  This… sense of commonality I am referring to is made even more complicated by a related but not identical issue: intermarriage.  The fact that there are so many members of so many of our families who are not Jewish truly “complexifies” this search for the elusive thread of Jewish unity.   
         For now, then, I suppose what I am saying is… there is something in common between any families with any Jewish members in it.  Even if, perhaps, that pull is not felt powerfully in our day to day lives.  
         We are so different from one another.  What could that unity be?  Is it something nebulous and impossible to define?  It is simply a shared past, and the sense of some kind of common destiny still?
         The stakes are high here.  I believe that the entire Zionist enterprise, the notion of Israel as a Jewish homeland rests not on religious belief, but the notion of a Jewish people, the idea that there is something which unites us as Jews which transcends behavior and belief.
         My sense of being Jewish is central to who I am.  But is it all of it?  And what other commitments clash with that?

A few years ago the question was posed to me in a different way.  If I had the hypothetical choice between being Orthodox, or not being Jewish at all, what would I choose?  After a lot of thought, comforting myself with some very positive experiences with the progressive cutting edge of the so-called “modern Orthodox” world, or among the "open Orthodox," I came up with an answer.  
 But then the question was pushed further still.  If I had to choose between being ultra-Orthodox, or not being Jewish at all...?
All I can say in response to that is to duck the question, or redefine the parameters.  I cannot envision that scenario.  

I believe in Jewish unity.  But/and…  There are core parts of my being and my own belief system which I view as part of my Jewish identity, rather than apart from it.  There are values I hold which, if forced to put aside, would simply not be Judaism as I understand it.
I share some of those values with you now.  
Part of my Jewish core is egalitarianism, the belief in equal roles, rights and responsibilities for all, affirmed at a certain age (Bar or Bat Mitzvah, whether one has a ceremony or not), but regardless of gender. 
Another is a belief in history.  I believe that Jewish life, culture, perspectives, attitudes and sacred texts grow in and over time.  I believe in building a bridge between yesterday and today, between the world of text and tradition and the lives we lead in any given time period.
         A third is a connection to humanity as a whole.  Even as I work on behalf of a Jewish community and to promote a Jewish future, my core beliefs include a sense of the dignity of all life, that all human beings – all of us, of all colors and creed, races and religion, all of us are made in the image of God.  Yes, I believe there is something special about being Jewish and I want to encourage Jewish choices and Jewish life – but I do not believe in a fundamental, ontological, inherent  and unalterable difference in the “souls” of one group of human beings from any other. 
Finally, for now, my core beliefs include the impulse towards involvement with the world, the work to make this world a better place, even while recognizing that different people will be moved to do this in very different ways.  Yes, progressive Jews use this term so much that it is easy to mock it.  But I believe in the obligation of tikkun olam.
 
 I believe in history and growth, in tradition and change, in science and spirituality, in the Jewish people and a connection with all of creation, in self-interest and in standing up for others.  And I believe that all can be held, with love, in the palms of an open hand, with open hearts and open minds.

What comes first, and what is secondary?  What binds us together, and what tears us apart?  Who am I, and who are you?
No final answers, and even how we respond, or what we feel about this, may change, for each of us, over time.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Aspiration, Appreciation and Awe


Aspiration, Appreciation and Awe

46th Interfaith Thanksgiving Service
of the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas and
the St. Thomas Reformed Church
November 15, 2018

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
         Thank you, all of you, for this wonderful service.  Because I am speaking tonight, I was tempted to use that nice, flat parking space around the corner.  You know, the one with sign that says: “You park here, you preach here.”  I’ve always kind of wondered – is that a threat or a promise?
         Friends, for me, personally, and on behalf of my congregation, it is so wonderful to be here with you tonight.  To Reverend Neevel, to Music Director Chanelle Schaffer, I am grateful for your presence in my life, as colleagues, and as friends.  To so many of the members of this holy congregation, you have been an anchor for this neighborhood – and, again, in many ways, for me and for my family, in our short time on island. 
         And speaking very personally, to this church… it was to this place, to this communal circle that I came one Sunday morning, in search of solace and spirituality and…song…  in the aftermath of our hurricane altered High Holy Days last year.   Despite our world-wide network of thousands of overseas families, literally thousands, we are – and especially right after the storms we were -- a fairly small on island community.  We managed, as we have in an unbroken chain of two centuries, to celebrate our most sacred season.  But, barely.  Just,  barely. 
         And I felt, in a way I truly never had before, some intenal need.  I found that, here, in a gift you gave to me.  The theology may have been different, a bit.  But here I found fellowship and energy, warmth and light that lifted me up, and carried me on as we took our first, tentative steps towards recovery.

         A message for us all, tonight, in three parts.  About power and light.  About the good that can come from awareness, and acknowledgement. About aspiration and appreciation and awe. 
        Part One.
         The journey from last year to this one.  It stays with me, I think, each milestone on that road, each stage of the new normal.  I remember when the theater finally opened, in February.  The first film we saw was Black Panther.  What an amazing thing it was, to see that film, in this place, with so much of a

sense of power and spirit coming together – recovery, pride, color, affirmation.  If a theater can be its own form of sanctuary, if any  expression of art at its most powerful can work this way -- that was an experience of awe.
         So why am I talking about a comic book?  What does that have to do with a place where we dive into the Bible, or try to find lessons for our lives?  What might tie all of that together?
I brought a book with me tonight. It was a curious gift, from a past president of my former congregation, amused and a bit embarrassed, both, when she gave it to me.  This is The Book of Genesis: Illustrated, by R. Crumb – a Biblical comic book.  Unabridged but… unorthodox.  And, um, anatomically correct.  I have it with me, now, as a kind of tangential tribute to a different writer… a Jewish man we lost this past week.
         I am not sure, in the end, over the past hundred years, who or what has inspired more people to read: the Bible?  J.K. Rowling?  Or Stanley Martin Lieber.  AKA Stan Lee.
         There have been many clips played over the past few days, past interviews with this prolific comic-book writer.  What stands out for me, is a comment Lee made about those of his characters which I, perhaps, know the least well: not Spider Man or Thor, Ant Man or Daredevil, Iron Man or Doctor Strange, not the Hulk or the Avengers or Peggy Carter or, um, er, you know, the Scarlett Johannson one.  But the few I never watched, and know little about: the X-Men. 
         In their first appearance, Lee said, the first issue which featured them, they were… regular people, who wore ordinary street clothes.  The response was immediate, overwhelming and unanimous.  It went something like this: amazing, fantastic, great story, can’t wait for the next one.  But get them into costumes, or we won’t buy it at all.
         So maybe it makes for a better book.  Visually appealing, easier on the eye, jumps out.  But beyond the glitz and the graphics, belied by a format so seemingly juvenile that serious stuff slides in unannounced… there is a very powerful premise behind all this superhero stuff. 
         Darkness may come, the light may go out, hope may be lost and forgotten.  But there is still wonder in the world.  Marvel and miracles.  And it could be you, and it could be me.  The real power is in us.  If we but open our eyes, and discover… what we are truly able to do.
         Power, and aspiration.  End, of Part One.

        Part Two.
         I came here on a Sunday morning, last year.  Two weeks ago, we needed you.  And many of you… came to us.  What remains with me, from our Solidarity Shabbat, is Imam Mohammed calling all the clergy who were there forward at the end of his remarks.  There, on our pulpit, stood the imam, an AME preacher, a Moravian minister, Reverend Neevel… and one very moved rabbi.  At a time of feeling torn, it was grace and healing and hope.  In the midst of division, and even out of authentic diversity, it was a moment of unity.
         But the beat goes on, and the world goes as it will, and the news just never stops.  Whole communities in flames, smoke in our eyes – and blood on our hands…with yet another murder of an innocent African American.  No, not just innocent.  A hero, a protector, a guard in uniform, who did his job, ended an attack, and was shot on sight by the first police on the scene, no hesitation or question or pause.  How do, how can we still see ourselves in each other, how come together with such barely contained forces beneath the surface, so quick to tear us apart?
         Unity.  Oneness.
         I think of the most sacred prayer of my tradition.  It is not really a prayer at all, but a statement, about oneness.  It is the Shema, the declaration of faith.  “Hear O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is one.”
         As an aside I will share that I had been taught, growing up that this sentence was pure and clear, a straightforward declaration of unadulterated monotheism, our initial and still ultimate declaration of the Oneness of God.  Well, not so fast.  That…may not have been what it meant at first.
         But I will share what these words mean to me.  To do so, I turn from the comic to the cosmos, theology to cosmology, metaphysics to astrophysics.
         What is the Holy Grail, if you will,  of modern math, the ultimate puzzle all particle physicists are trying to solve?  It is the Grand Unified Field Theory, the hint, the hunch that all the basic forces of the universe, all of them -- electricity, magnetism, light, gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, all of them can be defined by a single set of mathematical equations.  Even if… even if it will take, as scientists now believe… twelve spatial dimensions for the math to work out.  And even if… even if…the world worked this way… only for the first billionth of a billionth of a second in the life of the universe.  Still, you figure out that math and I promise, Stockholm will come calling.  Your Nobel Prize is just around the corner.
         Think about it.  If this is true, if this is right, then… even if all that is and all that will be were in total harmony for the only briefest of moments, still, if this is right then there is a connection between everything.  What we say, what we pray for when the world seems broken and shattered… is literally, physically, scientifically true.  There is a unity in the universe, a primal pull which somehow calls and binds and brings together all that seems distinct.  Literally true, that the molecules in my fingernail, your tears, the wood in that pew, the stone we stumbled on coming in, mist in the moist cloud over Tortola, the spiked tail of the iguana outside our building, all of it, all of it, is just stuff that shifts places, exchanges itself, transforms.  All we are is energy congealed in ways temporarily distinct and only superficially separate and apart.
         There is, yes, much which makes us different, and I cherish that.  But we are also, fundamentally, literally, truly, part of each other.  We are one, the world is one, God is one.
        Aspiration. We are more powerful that we can possibly imagine.
        And awe.  Everything is connected.  The universe throbs with a beating heart of divinity, a oneness at the heart of the world.
        End of part two.

Part Three.  Appreciation.
         There is so much that is wrong with the world.  There is a saying that goes: “if you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.”  But as another colleague taught me: we can lead with that, but we cannot end with it.  “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.”  Yes.  But, also: “if you are always outraged… you are not paying attention either.”
         Thanksgiving comes.  All of us need, I believe, this prod to appreciate.  This gift of gratitude.
In English we say that we should count our blessings.  In Judaism, though we may not emphasize this enough, this is literally what we do. At some level, I believe it is a large part… of what spirituality is about.
         Do you remember the opening of Fiddler on the Roof, the montage of encounters, snippets of shtetl life?  Disciples approach the rebbe and pose a question.   Is there,” the disciples ask… “is there a blessing for the czar?”
         The rebbe responds: “Of course.  There is a blessing for everything.  May God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!”
         I have heard this exchange hundreds of times and still it makes me smile.  But the important part is what comes first.  “There is a blessing for everything.”
         There is a blessing for everything.  This night, we come together from different traditions.  What I have just said… it is, I think, a fundamentally Jewish way of looking at the world.  But it can also be a gift, to all of us.
         I love… I really have come to cherish… the Christian tradition of… spontaneous blessings, the offering of the heart, the search for the right words for each and every occasion.  What we do is a bit different.  There is a quiver of customized arrows, a whole set of plug and play prayers to use for many different moments.  There is the blessing to be said on food from a tree, and that which comes from the ground.  There is a generic blessing for meat, fish, and eggs – and a special prayer for chocolate chip cookies (well, baked goods). 
         And there are blessings for what we see: a friend, trees blossoming for the first time in a season, a rainbow, a tall mountain, Magen’s Bay, a great scholar, the ruler of a country.  (Maybe even the governor of a territory.  I have to check on that one.)
         You may yawn your way through life.  You may blink and miss the power of a moment.  But no matter how mundane it may seem on the surface, every encounter is supremely sublime.   As we saw, under the surface of the superficial lies the DNA of divinity, if we but open our eyes and see.  
         And just as with DNA, where every cell contains the code for the entire organism, so does every moment hold within it echoes of eternity.  Every experience is an encounter with the entirety of existence.
         For Doctor Who fans I would say that this is the Tardis of tradition.  And it is bigger on the inside than the out.  When we are aware, when we acknowledge the connections, when we give voice to our appreciation, we step into the web of eternity, where then is now and here is there and dark is light and God is here and all are one.

Aspiration.  We have power, beyond what we think.
Awe. 
We open our eyes and see a unity beneath our differences.
Appreciation.  We make our oneness real, when we give it voice and value.
Power, connection and expression.  The very act of opening our eyes, and coming together, and giving thanks… just that, can change the world.
May we all have… a powerful, spiritual and very meaningful Thanksgiving.