Friday, March 20, 1998

The XF11 Files

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

So for 24-hours last week it looked like Chicken Little was right. For 24-hours it seemed a real possibility that the sky might be falling after all.

The object that caused such concern: an obscure white blick on an astronomical photoplate, a mile-long asteroid dubbed 1997 XF11 and listed, now, in cosmological terms as a PHO. A "Potentially Hazardous Object." Even the date of our remotely possible encounter with fate was fixed for all to see: on October 26, 2028, a Thursday, object 1997 XF11 was, for some time last week, thought to perhaps show the hint of a theoretical potential of passing within 30,000 miles of the Earth.

I loved the way the New York Times reported the story. Journalist Malcolm Browne wrote that there was a "very slight possibility" that the asteroid might hit the Earth. In such a scenario, he went on to inform us, such an impact "would not necessarily be enough to wipe out the human race."

Nothing like such measured words to go with breakfast. Hey, I generally don't drink coffee, so this made me wake up. Pour milk, stir in instant perspective! Like the words of an old bumper sticker: "One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day!"

By the next day, the scare had died down. New calculations put the hurtling rock 600,000 miles away, a "close but no cigar kind of near miss" that will provide a voyeuristic opportunity for an adrenaline rush without any real danger. Probably. We think. Unless, of course, the astronomers were paid off. By secret agents. To calm us down. To let Ken Starr finish his work. All part of some vast right wing conspiracy. (THIS COLUMN HAS BEEN IMPOUNDED BY THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT. THERE IS NO ACTUAL CAUSE FOR ALARM. WE REPEAT...)

My friends, for years now, in anticipation of the coming turn of the century, staring at the fact of all those zeroes on a calendar, our Christian colleagues and neighbors worldwide have been in the first throes of a speculative frenzy. Computers may crash, and mass confusion ensue, but many people are trying to look at an even bigger picture. With a change in digits, everyone is analyzing what the old era was about, and what the new time will bring. What it means for humanity. If Elvis -- or others -- will return.

We Jews have been in a bit of a bind about this Year 2000 business. After all, we are part of the general culture. We use the common calendar. We'll have to stop writing 1999 on our checks, just like everyone else. And yet the commotion commemorates a date at best indifferent to us, and at worst one whose theological presuppositions we simply do not share. Any calendar is an artifice, a human creation, but it would still be nice to join in with the crowd, and share this sense of speculation and reflection.

But hey, thanks to an alarmist astronomer, now we can feel fully free to participate. And its not just the turning of a year. It's the end of the world. Even Hindu nationalists will have to reevealuate their plans. It affects everyone. It unites us all. Ok, so the date causing us to look inward is 2028, not 2000. But what's a quarter century between friends?

And so, with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, we turn inward, and ask the big questions. What is the meaning of life? What have we accomplished in human history? If we had only a few years left, what would we do with the time? If it all went away in a big boom tomorrow, would the roaches outlast us all?

And the inevitable question: can we make it go away? As a brief discussion flared up about nuclear tipped missles to drive the asteroid off course, I was reminded of the old joke in which God decided to tell Richard Nixon that the world would be flooded in three days. The president told the American people that they had three days to do whatever they wanted, to loot, to plunder, to watch I Love Lucy reruns. Then, because of detente, Nixon decided to pick up the hotline and call Brezhnev. Brezhnev told the Russians that they had three days to perfect Communism. And, because of our special relationship with Israel, Nixon also phoned Golda. She went before the Israeli public and said: look, folks. "You've got three days to learn how to swim." We are experts on survival, we Jews. Maybe we have something to say... even about asteroids.

But to dwell for the moment on the inner search, and not the quick fix. The approach of an asteroid for a population, or a reminder of mortality for an individual, does the same thing. It makes us look at our lives, and our labors. It makes us wonder about the worth of our work. It makes us, perhaps, sort out our priorities, and concentrate on what is truly important in our lives. The friends that we make. The families we build. The projects that count. The people we help. The things we do to make the world a better place in the time on Earth we have.

As we complete the reading of the book of Exodus, we read of another type of completion. It is the story of the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem, focal point of the sacred enterprise which engaged our people in the aftermath of Sinai. We read: "And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks -- as the Eternal had commanded, so they had done -- Moses blessed them."

In the early part of this century, the philosopher Martin Buber discovered the many ways in which the story of the completion of the Tabernacle in the wilderness echoes the story of the creation of the world. The same words are used, the same verbal roots. God -- and later the people -- are said to have '"made" or "fashioned" their handiwork, to "see" and "behold" it, to "finish" and "complete" it, and, finally, to "bless" it. The same roots, the same words, the same order. Somehow, there is a connection being made, between the construction of the Tabernacle and the creation of the world.

Somehow, indeed, there is a connection between the work of the world, and the way of the world. Between what we do, and something beyond ourselves. For when we are doing God's work, when we are doing what God wants us to do, we are, indeed, completing God's world. However long it takes. And however long we have.

When I was young, I remember reading a book, and then seeing the movie, about what would happen if another planet smashed into ours. It was called When Worlds Collide. In the opening scene, an airplane pilot who had brought one scientist to meet another, who had accidentily overheard the newly discovered discussion of impending doom, is seen in a restaurant lighting $100 bills on fire and using them to light a cigar.

We are all given a finite time on this earth. But rather than burning bills, we must burn with the flame of faith, with the fire of conviction, with the energy of sacred tasks and holy work.

We read in Pirkei Avot: "lo alecha hamelacha ligmor; it is not incumbent upon you to finish the work. V'lo atta ben horin l'hivatel mimenu. But neither are you free to desist from it." However long it takes. And however long we have.

Sunday, March 15, 1998

A Downtown Meeting

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

So I was running late for my meeting. I had left the Temple late, the building I was looking for wasn't where I expected it to be, the parking sign was small and I missed it on my first pass by. Still, I was on my way to a meeting I had sought, and I was looking forward to it. I was going to meet the (Catholic) Bishop, and I was confident that "the Cause" (Catholic-Jewish dialog, mutual understanding, world peace and harmony, simple human justice, you name it) would be advanced by our encounter.

In any event, that had been my experience in the past. The dialog between the (two) rabbis of Erie, Pennsylvania, where I lived until last summer, with the region's Christian Bishops (Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist) had been very productive; regular meetings led to study sessions, crisis management, the building of bridges, and, on occasion, the ability to speak in a single voice as a solidly unified community of faith. I had been a proud participant in these discussions, and I believed in them.

In addition, I serve on the Reform movement's national Committee on Interreligious Affairs. I am interested in the interchange between communities of faith in this country at a national level. I believe that we are blessed to be living in a unique period of history, and a place in the world, when and where the doors of understanding and, even more simply, the opportunity for encounter with one another, exist on a scale unprecedented in all of human history. Why, just a generation ago a Catholic was not allowed to enter into a Protestant church, much less a synagogue, nor would Jews ever think of visiting a Christian service. (A concert in a church, perhaps, or the obligatory art tour of the cathedrals of Europe. But a spiritual encounter in a place that evoked images of persecution? Never! Well, hardly ever.)

And so, with local concerns and national credentials well rehearsed, I was ready for my meeting. Or so I thought.

It was a bitterly cold day. The worst of an otherwise deceptively mild winter. As I came near the entrance to the Catholic center, a young looking African American woman approached me. I could tell what was coming. She was going to ask me for money.

I was right. I haven't been asked for money on the street that much in the suburbs of late. I used to carry a separate coin purse in Manhatten, however, so I could respond to the mitzvah of tzedakah -- but also not feel a need to take my full wallet out. It was cold. She looked miserable. I took out my wallet. I gave her two dollars.

She asked for twenty. She said she was a grandmother. I gave her another single. She asked for ten, then five. God would bless me, she assured me, if only I gave her more. I told her that was all I could do. At the same time I wondered at bit.. at her theological chutzpah. Here I was, a religious leader, on my way to see another religious leader... and she was telling me whom God would bless? I wished her well, and good luck. I entered the building. And I went upstairs to my meeting.

The meeting was fine. I enjoyed it. The Bishop was warm, personable, interested... and very bright. He knew from Jews; he had a great deal of experience with Interfaith dialog throughout his career. But this is Buffalo, not Erie. It is a bigger pond. I cannot claim to represent the whole community. So here I was, the rabbi of a single synagogue, meeting with a man in charge of an entire region. I am not sure what tangible results came out of our meeting, although I am glad that I went.

I had sort of skipped lunch. I had meetings straight through the usual dinner hour. I left the downtown building, and grabbed something to eat in the mid-afternoon. The waitress was particularly nice, so I reached into my wallet to give her an additional dollar. An additional dollar. For bringing me water with a smile on her face.

And all of a sudden it hit me as if the glass of water was thrown in my face. I was so willing to part with my money, for some things. And so grudging about others. (And yes, I know the Maimonides passage, about the lowest level of tzedakah being that which is given grudgingly, or less than what one is asked to do.) So willing when it seems like my choice. So unwilling when it was someone else's.

And more. I had a meeting downtown the other day. Perhaps I wasn't late, and I wasn't early. Perhaps the meeting downtown took place exactly when it was supposed to occur. Perhaps the reason I went downtown was not to meet with a religious leader at all. Perhaps the reason I went downtown was to have a chance encounter with a woman whose name I will never know. Who had a need in her life -- and a lesson to teach. At the bottom of the building. In the harsh chill of the coldest day of the year.

I came face to face with my arrogance the other day. Not for the amount I gave. But for the self-importance in my own heart. The next time someone looks me in the eye with need... may I respond to the whole person, and with my whole being. For real meetings are not always planned. And true encounters happen, not when we have them in our schedules, but in their own time. All the time.

Thursday, March 05, 1998

Shots Heard 'Round the World:
Basketball and Judaism

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

Despite being traumatized and affected for years to come by the departure of my home town team as a tender youth, and, indeed, despite my unswerving attachment to the real America's team in a completely different sport (that's the Washington Redskins, folks, for anyone under the mistaken impression that Dallas has anything to do with the rest of the country), I had always thought that it was baseball that provided the best material for sermons and other spiritual commentary. After all, in baseball, almost unique among sports, that the game is truly not over until it is over. The valuable lesson of never giving up simply does not apply to a 66-3 football blowout entering the fourth quarter. Start the car, avoid the crowd, switch to Star Trek on another station. Stick a fork in your team, they're done. But in baseball, until the last out is called, no matter the deficit, there is always hope. And it is in baseball that teaches, as a former commissioner of the game once said, that one in three is greatness. And that errors are part of the game.

Never giving up. Not succeding each and every attempt. Accepting imperfection. These are amongst the most powerful spiritual lessons any sport -- or any sermon -- can hope to teach. They are lessons that come from baseball.

But move over, America's national pasttime. For this past month, lessons are coming fast and furious from another field. No, not Japan. From the court of play to the court of law, to the court of public opinion. This month the lessons come from that monotonous dribble of sameness, that track meet masked as competition: basketball.

Item: University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma arranges for his star player, Nykesha Sales, injured the previous week and supposedly out for the season despite being a single point shy of breaking her school's single season scoring record, to take an uncontested shot, a staged basket, at the start of her team's last regular season game. She made the shot. She broke the record. Or did she?

Item: A thug disguised as a professional basketball player, one Latrell Sprewell, assaults his coach, chokes him, and returns after one physical encounter to initiate another and, reportedly, threaten to kill the man as well. His team terminates his contract and the league suspends the player from the league for an entire year. It does not press criminal charges. But Sprewell, apparantly unmollified by the fact that he was not facing jail time, challenges the suspension. An arbitrator supports the challenge, orders Sprewell's suspension shortened, and most of his back pay reinstated. Score: National Basketball Player's Association: 1, Human Decency, Responsibility and Accountability: 0.

I am truly torn by the first incident. My initial reaction was that I didn't have an immediate opinion on the subject. (Those who know me know how rare that is.) Or, rather, I had two opinions. It was kind, it was compassionate, it was a human moment in the midst of cutthroat competition. It was ridiculous and inappropriate, it makes records meaningless, it can't really count.

The second incident is more serious. Such behavior off a court really would land one in jail or, for a first offense, at least facing criminal charges. Overturning the league's ruling makes a laughing stock of discipline, and sends a message that violence is tolerated if you have enough talent to consistently place a rubber object inside a metal circle. As NBA Commissioner David Stern said, "the answer is now well established: you cannot choke your boss and hold your job unless you play in the NBA..."

But these two basketball-related incidents have something in common with each other. A sport is an invention, a game, with rules and expectations and, when you enter into its world, a suspension of disbelief, an embrace of the generally accepted parameters that define its borders. The Sales and Sprewell incidents, in different ways and for different reasons, nonetheless both break that suspension of disbelief. They both invade the border of a world, they both cross lines between the world of a game and what we think of as the "real" world. Injuries are part of the game, a factor for individual players and for coaches weighing the balance and depth of their team; they cannot be wished away. Deliberate violence, on the other hand, is not part of the game. It cannot be condoned, tolerated or excused. With Sales and Sprewell, "inside" and "outside," "game" and "world," "constructed reality A," and, if we are honest with ourselves, "constructed reality B" that we think of as the everyday world collide. And when worlds collide, we need to "'Nupe it." But it's not just our joints that ache.

So what does this have to do with religion? Why is a rabbi writing about sports? It's because I know what that headache is like, when worlds collide. As Jews in a modern world, we know all about the crashing together of inside and outside, the dissonant overlap between Reality One and Reality Two. Reconstructionist Jews phrase it differently, but mean the same thing: they know that we stand at a crash-prone intersection on the highway of two civilizations.

You see, I believe that religions are, like sports, constructed realities. I believe that all religions, including the one to which I adhere and to which I have pledged my soul, my sweat, and my career, are artificial inventions of human beings. Inspired by a reality, an impulse, a holy voice beyond ourselves, yes; but the details, the parameters, the specific rules, the particular pathways to Eternity... the material may be ordered from above, we have to pave the paths ourselves. All religions, including Judaism, are meaning, systems made with our minds and shaped by human hands. They are, in this way, like entering into a game. There are rules. There are expectations. And there is a moment when we enter into another world, with its own borders, its own realities. We train, we study, we learn about the world. But to enter it fully there is a moment when the training becomes merely prelude, when it has brought us so far but can go no further, when we must take the next step ourselves. To enter into a world with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. It takes a leap of faith. A leap towards heaven. A jump shot sent towards the sky.. on the wings of a prayer.

Inside. And outside. And sometimes I wonder if all of the conflicts and controversy going on in the Jewish world at the moment have to do with different ideas about where the borders are. About what is on the inside, and what is on the outside. Or who.

To play a game you have to, as the saying goes, "play by the rules." To live in, to experience a religious tradition you have to immerse yourself in the assumptions and claims of another world. To say that one day a week is different from others, it is not just Friday night, but Erev Shabbat. To say that one place is different from other places, it is a Promised Land, a sacred part of a people's story. To see a pair of candles or a six pointed star or tasteless flat bread or "backwards" black letters on an unrolled scroll and feel a part of the picture, a connection with the props, a string pulled in your own heart. It is your uniform. Your field. Your home team.

And the tensions on the team? One player says it counts for more if you throw the ball from here. Another says it doesn't. One player says that one line is out of bounds. Another says the field should be repainted, to extend the boundaries, to include new places, to include new people. One player says the coach has to approve you to be on the team. Another says that anyone who wants to wear your uniform can come and take a shot.

Conversion. Intermarriage. Outreach and Inclusion. Acceptance of each other. Recognition of rabbis. The role of women. Changing tradition. The length of holidays. Peace with others. Peace amongst ourselves. All these things are disagreements about rules, about boundaries, about how to play a game or form a team. About whose shots count, and who hits coaches. About the assumptions we should share to make a world work.

It is not just a game. It is life. The essence of community, of a people, of a faith is that we share a certain number of assumptions about the universe, that we look at the world, to some critical degree, in the same way. When we don't share some necessary level of commonality, we aren't part of the same team anymore. We can't be.

Am Echad, we Jews call ourselves. "One People." But are we? Only to the degree we are moving in the same direction, sharing the same goals, working towards the same ends. Only when we are able to function... as players on a field, and members of a team.

Maybe, on some issues, the different denominations of Judaism see things so differently that we are not all on the same team. If that is the case, then perhaps we can at least try to remember that we can, I hope, agree on enough, to be in the same league. And to play the same game.