Tuesday, August 20, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD
        My previous post (see below: Words Matter), which also recently appeared, in edited form, on the back page of the most recent Reform Judaism magazine (http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=3290) might have a problem.  Or at least, based on the feedback I am getting, there was something I did not think of.
          I proposed the word “chaverim” as a replacement for “members” in synagogue life.  I still like the proposal.  But it is awfully close to a parallel and in some ways overlapping part of (or rival to?) synagogues – the Chavurah.  Now, there are such chavurot (small group fellowships) within congregations, and there are independent Chavurot that function as quasi-congregations, or NSO’s (non-synagogue organizations). 
The words and concepts are obviously linked.  But what separates them?  What would be the difference between my “chaver” of a synagogue, and a Chavurah?
You know, when you are in a chavurah, you get to know everyone in it in an intimate way.  You break bread together, you celebrate holidays, you are there for the joyous life-cycle events, and you support each other in tough times.  Large synagogue settings obviously need such a sense of small-group connections within the overall framework; you can be BFF’s with more than one person (despite the linguistic conundrum involved)… but you can’t be close friends with everyone.
Here, though, I am struck by a really powerful comment someone shared with me a few years ago now.  There was a tragedy in the congregation, a young sibling of a congregant suddenly died, and we organized meals for the family.  (We don’t, I must confess, do full meals for every family in mourning; I think it would be great to do so but that is not what we have been able to do on a routine basis.)
But this family wasn’t in a “chavurah” per se.  They had some, but not a large number of close friends in the congregation.  So the people bringing the meals, by and large, did not know the family they were cooking for (or, in this day and age, who they were picking up food for – also appreciated; this is not a mitzvah that should be limited only to those with enough time to do a home-cooked meal!)
And one woman, a long-time, very active congregant, told me how much it meant to her, to have the chance to help… someone she did not know.  That she got to know someone new here… not to be best friends, but, well, just to be there.
Those words have always stuck with me.  Because… here’s the difference between a chavurah, and a chaver of a synagogue.  A Chavurah is folks you know well.  When you go to visit in the hospital, when you cook a meal, when you celebrate a holiday together, you are doing so with an “almost family.”  You are responding to a friend in need.
That is great.  And it would also be great if we could feel that way about the whole world.  Remember that the Christian concept of “charity” is based on the notion of “charitos”, the same root as “charisma,” which means “love.”  How great would that be, to love everyone?”
Forget it.  Until the Messiah comes, until human nature changes, until Facebook makes friends of us all, not going to happen.
But when you go, not out of want, but out of need, when you go not out of subjective connection, but out of objective obligation… that… that is about a different level of values.  That,  I think, is the meaning of mitzvah.  Feeding a close friend, who wouldn’t do that.  Feeding someone in your community you do not know, but are bound to… that is a horse of a different color, a value of a different valence.  Would that we could all be close.  But needs are now, and the need is real.
Both are important, the chavurah and the chaver.    One will be there because they know you.  The other will be there… because they should.  And maybe, even, will get to know you. 
Or not.  What they get out of it is that what they get out of it is not the point!
Ask not for whom the bell tolls.  Really.  Don't ask.  Just do.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Words Matter: Using Spiritual Vocabulary to Create Community

Words Matter:
Redefining A Spiritual Community
With a Vocabulary That Creates Connections

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD

          Perhaps the whole of the Reform movement of Judaism can be summed up with the following phrases: history happens, continuity has always been balanced and blended with change – and the world is made up of the words we use to describe it.
          There is much to say about each of these phrases (the notion that evolution is a part of social development, that we interact with the world around us but maintain our own identity, and much more), but I want to concentrate, for now, on the implications of the third idea, that words matter.  Words work, to shape the reality around us.  That is why our movement changed a number of the prayers: there were some traditional phrases or ideas so at variance with either what we saw of the world, or what we wanted the world to be, that we could no longer say such things out loud.  When there were assertions that jumped out at us as primitive, problematic, or even offensive, these were things we amended, adjusted, or simply cut out of the service altogether.  (The fact that words work in emotional ways as well, that music moves the soul, and that this is not entirely an intellectual experience – in other words, that we might well “sing” something we would not “say,” or the rhythm of the ritual might convey something other than the apparent cognitive and surface meaning of the words -- that was an insight that came to our movement later in its development; it took us awhile to figure that out.)
          Just as the words of prayer matter, however, I also believe that the words we use to build, construct and maintain a community matter as well.  And in this regard, this is something I have been wondering, and worried about, for a long time.
          Let’s talk about the words we use, things like “membership” and “dues.”  What do the words convey?  What are we implying, and expecting, and promising with the use of such words?  And are there alternatives that might serve everyone’s needs in a holier, and more holistic way?
          “Membership,” of course, brings up images of clubs and cliques, of who is in and who is out, and, for those of a certain age, of bad tv commercials from previous decades (“Membership has its privileges!”)  It implies a fee for service, an almost commercial context. 
But we would not be here at all without those who view themselves as “in” and “part of” the community.  The community, as such, would not exist.
          What might an alternative be?  I am decent with words, but I have not found a satisfying English substitute.  “Builders” seems too focused on the physical even though it could mean more than that, “partners” implies a shared vision but echoes too closely the “making partner” of law firms and other business associations. 
          I do not always or automatically believe that a Hebrew term is superior to an English one just because of its origin rooted in a Jewish world view, but for this term and for “dues,” below, that is what I have come up with.  The best I can do in a short exploratory essay is the inexact but common translation of “member,” which is “chaver,” or (plural) “chaverim.”  The “ch” is the Hebrew one, like in “Chanukah,” not the English, as in “cheese.”   The term literally means “friend” (remember President Clinton’s farewell to Yitzchak Rabin and the Prime Minister’s funeral – “Shalom, Chaver?”)  The term is used for those who are part of a kibbutz, those who are “members” of the Knesset (“chevrai Knesset,”), of those who are associates of one another in a shared enterprise-- but it has the active implications of intimacy that, I think, the English “member” only possesses if you think about a “member” as a body part, and part of a larger whole.   And related words using the same root promote the same sense of connectivity.   Chevrei” are a group of friends, “chevra” means “society,” a chevruta is a study partner, and a chavurah is a small group -- often within a synagogue -- of people connected by common interest or a consciously constructed communal impulse. 
          Would it change anything to see ourselves as a sacred society, as intimate friends, as colleagues in a shared venture, study partners in our Jewish journeys, as connected parts, as chaverim of a kehilah kedosha (a holy community)?
          And what of “dues”?  The word implies something we “owe,” an expectation, almost a one-way kind of obligation.  Clearly, of course, we need the material support, even for the most spiritual of services.  But what word would work better, to get at the concept of a covenant, a partnership, or reflect a shared stake in a values-based vision?  Here, a Thesaurus was of no help at all.  “Fees” seems even worse, “subscriptions” reduces us to a cable network, “assessments” and “excises” and “levies” are all clearly something externally imposed, and “duties” has a variety of problems as a term.  “Responsibilities” or even “obligations” are not terrible terms – but I would never want the responsibilities or obligations we share towards one another to be reduced to the material and monetary level; clearly the time we give and the care and love we bring are even more important (although we still need the material support as well!)
So, here, too, I turn to Hebrew.  Tzedakah” is too broad and has many other implications (including that which we give that is purely for others – clearly in intent and hopefully in practice synagogue dues are something we derive some benefit from ourselves).  At the moment the term I am the most comfortable with is “terumah” (or, plural, “terumot.”)  It means “offering,” but it comes from the same root as “to lift up” (Rahm Emanuel’s first name is based on the same root, the Hebrew word meaning “lifting up.”)  It happens to have a historic echo, in that the portion describing the very first synagogue building fund (the construction of the Tabernacle in the Wildernes, described in the book of Exodus) is called “Terumah.” 
          The term itself contains a dance between the fact that everyone is expected to lend a hand, but that different people do what they can in different ways.  And, I hope, this it is a concept we can come together around – that the support we give to a spiritual community is something that lifts each other up – both others, and ourselves.
I can imagine alternative visions, other terms, different phrases which tease out the values we mean to express in better ways.  But for now, as a start, and in terms of an overall theme I want to repeat just this: that words matter.  That what we say reflects on who we are, and what we want to accomplish. 
          Let us, then, be chaverim, intimate friends of and with one another, in the building of a sacred community.  And let our terumot, our offerings, be something which lifts us all, together – and also each one of us, individually.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Passover: How Long and Who Cares?

Logic Versus Custom, Seven Versus Eight?
Reflections on the End of Pesach and
Reconsideration of Personal Practice

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD

          I felt a tad sad as we marked the end of Passover this year, this past Monday night.  It wasn’t that I missed the matzah – on the contrary, I found the observance harder this year than on some previous occasions, even with a relaxed view of kitniyot (we followed the Sephardic practice, this year, of eating rice and beans and corn – as even the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi authorities who still insist on this restriction admit that it is “nonsense” based on a mistake.)
          No, I felt a bit sad because it felt too isolated, too lonely to end Passover after seven days.
          Seven days is the length of the holiday as ordained in the Torah.  It says it, in plain English, right there in the original!  (See, e.g., Exodus 12:15).  Seven days is the length of the holiday in Israel to this day, but Jews in the Diaspora had, several thousand years ago, added an “extra” day, to cover any irregularities or ambiguities in calculating the lunar calendar, and so the practice outside of Israel was to observe Passover for eight days.  At the outset of the Reform movement in the 19th century, arguing – with full logic – that the calendar had long since been calibrated with mathematic precision and no longer depended on witnesses showing up in the courtyard of the Temple reporting that they had seen the sliver of the new moon, our liberal branch of Judaism declared the “extra” day of all the holidays defunct, and returned Passover to its Biblically envisioned seven days.  (Why many Reform Jews now observe a Second Day of Rosh Hashanah is a complicated question for another time.)
          And so here I am, happily breaking bread and hauling boxes, last Monday night.  Seven is enough.  We’re done.  Passover is over.
          So why did we feel so all alone?
          I have written elsewhere (“Put Down That Bread,” http://www.faces-in-the-mirror.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2012-09-27T13:22:00-07:00&max-results=20&start=2&by-date=false) of the importance, the centrality of the observance of Passover, and the prohibition on the eating of bread (and other leavened products) as a core marker of Jewish identity.  I don’t want to repeat that argument now.  But I continue to notice the trend… away from this observance.
          When I was growing up avoiding leaven during Passover was a quite widespread observance – even among marginally affiliated or tentatively connected Jews.  But it just… doesn’t seem to be that way anymore.  At least not in the circles in which I travel.
          Ending Passover last Monday night?   Three Reform colleagues I spoke with Tuesday said they were waiting until Tuesday night. 
And on Monday night there was no “buzz,” no added activity, no excitement in the bakeries or pizza places in our part of town.  Because, I think – liberal Jews are no longer keeping seven days.  They are keeping either eight days – or one/none.  This practice… people are perfectly willing to eat matzah.  They just are not keen on giving anything up.  They are fine with the positive commandment.  But no one is going to tell them not to do something.  And the hard “work” of Passover comes down to preparing a seder meal – not to an all-out, full-blown, otherwise-totally-worthwhile Spring Cleaning.  (Note that I did not grow up in a kosher home – but we still got rid of the bread, put the cereal in the basement, put the not-often-consumed-anyway bottles of beer somewhere else.)
So here is the question: am I missing something, or going to the wrong part of town, or are we a vanishing-breed, we seven-days-of-Pesach Jews?  Where do you stand on this, and does it matter to you at all?  Did you end Pesach last Monday night?  Last Tuesday night?  Or sometime after the first seder?
Personally, I believe that eight days of Passover is excessive, illogical, and inaccurate.  But I know that custom and community often trump logic… and I miss that sense of being in this boat together.  I would actually consider switching our practice, extending the holiday against my own rational instincts… to return to a sense of breaking (or, more literally, baking) bread together.
Is this the most pressing question in the world?  Gun control and capital punishment are on the front pages, the spectre of nuclear weapons extends from the Middle East to East Asia.  Economic issues press upon us. 
But yes, I do believe Jewish solidarity is an important issue – and practices which surround and protect and promote Jewish identity are worth weighing in our lives.  So, no apologies from this corner, for raising what may seem a small issue to some.  There is a word for that feeling of opening oneself up to obligation, to being pulled, or called, to a commitment that comes from outside the self.  That word is “holy.”  And that feeling of connection to my community, that feeling that was missing this year… that is something to which I am wholly committed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An Unfinished Revolution -- The Life and Legacy of Rabbi David Hartman

An Unfinished Revolution:
The Life and Legacy of Rabbi David Hartman
Parashat Terumah
February 15, 2013

          Early July, 2010, was the first day that I set foot in an institution I would quickly come to think of as a second home.  It was a busy day at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; everywhere I looked people were engaged in animated discussions, and there was a sea of green and grey and blue uniforms – it seemed as if the Institute had been invaded by the Israel Defense Forces.  I quickly learned that all officers in Israel who reach a certain rank are now required to take a two-week long seminar on Jewish identity as part of their training – and that two days of that seminar, dealing with pluralism and democracy… take place at and is run by the Shalom Hartman Institute.
          My friends, the Jewish world lost a giant this past week, a monumental figure whose importance to contemporary Jewish life, whose impact in Israel and in North America and in the entire Jewish world was enormous, but whose legacy might be hard to convey to those not familiar with his work.  Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Institute named after his father, passed away in Jerusalem last Sunday.  He was 81.
          I am not among the students and disciples who had known Reb Dovid for many years.  I heard him in person only over the past few years.  I will try to share with you something of his story, but listen first, if you will, to the testimony of others.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs, now President of the Union for Reform Judaism, writes that “I would not be a rabbi if I had not studied with Rabbi David Hartman.”  One Conservative colleague I sit with said that reading Rabbi Hartman’s book Joy and Responsibility changed his life forever, and another Conservative rabbi indicated that the book A Living Covenant transformed [his] thinking about God, revelation and the meaning of Israel in Jewish religious consciousness.”  An Orthodox rabbi writes that “he saved Orthodoxy from itself,” a philosophy professor calls him “one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century,” and secular Israelis speak of how he opened a window, and then a door, into the traditional world for them.  And I… he was suffering in these past few years, and not in his prime, but still he often took my breath away.  And when I read The God Who Hates Lies, there were times when I put the book down and cried. 
          Who is this man, this enigmatic revolutionary thinker and builder, who had such an impact on those who knew him? 
          The simple story begins this way: Rabbi David Hartman was born on September 11, 1931 into an ultra-Orthodox family, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.  He was immersed in the yeshiva world – he studied in Lakewood and at a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva.  [For those of you not familiar with the universe of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, this is an amazing statement – it means that he was fully immersed in both the Litvish, or Lithuanian, and the Chasidic branches of Charedi Judaism.  We may think of the ultra-Orthodox as a monolithic bloc but it is hardly that, and these are the opposite ends of that world.]  He went on to Yeshiva University, receiving rabbinic ordination from, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, perhaps the single most important Orthodox rabbi of the past century.   He then became perhaps the preeminent disciple of the Rav. Soloveitchik urged his student to delve into secular studies as well, and it was while studying philosophy at Fordham and later McGill, and through encountering the spiritual journeys of those with very different backgrounds, that David Hartman’s world really opened up.  “I was,” he writes with characteristic honesty, “often struck by an awareness that my Catholic philosophy instructors were inspiring far more religious connection and consciousness than my rabbis at Yeshiva.”
          In many ways I might say that what happened to David Hartman is that the reality and the real lives of those around him entered into his theoretical and theological consciousness, and he was willing to call a spade a spade.  He led congregations in the Bronx and then Montreal.  The stories he tells of his congregational work are deeply moving, especially his openness to the times when moral choices come into head on conflicts with religious tradition – I think he may actually have performed the marriage of a lonely, life-long bachelor who finally met the woman of his dreams, but he was a Cohen and she was a convert, and they could not marry according to Orthodox tradition.  This is what he wrote about it, in The God Who Hates Lies: “The notion of telling these two very serious Jewish seekers that they must deny themselves the happiness of marriage because of this now-obscure, ancient principle seemed unacceptable as the ground for destroying their dream to build a new life.  I told Peter that I would be honored to perform the wedding.”
          This is an Orthodox rabbi?  Yes, actually – but what an Orthodox rabbi he was!  He lived by and struggled with halacha – Jewish law, but developed the very-Reform sounding idea that Jewish tradition must be evaluated and embraced or challenged through the crucible of, well, the moral judgment of each individual Jew.  Or at least that’s what I heard him say in his last major book.
          But, again, what was the power, what the charisma, that led people to use such reverent phrases about him as saying that they were privileged to “sit at his feet.”  Or to refer to learning with him as “Hartman Torah.”  Those are strong words; this is a loyalty that goes beyond being grateful that someone was a really good teacher.  This is language of reverence, the utterance of disciples.  Why?
          It is because as modern as he was in his outlook, David Hartman was a rav in the old sense – he challenged, he probed, he poked, he stirred up the status quo… and he did so with love, love, love.  [He once told North American Jews that when they are critical of Israel, which was legitimate, we should speak the criticism as a mother, and not that of a mother-in-law!]  He saw the whole person, not just the tools or techniques of tradition.  He was, in other words, not just a passive teacher, but an active guide.  Another scholar, eulogizing him this week, recalled how his life, too, had been changed by one encounter: after delivering what he thought was an erudite and adequately footnote-filled sermon in some synagogue lecture hall somewhere, David Hartman punctured his pride and deepened his life with one question: “Did you say what you meant, and mean what you said – or did you just want to sound good?”
          Scholarship with meaning, depth and honesty, vision and values – this is what the Shalom Hartman Institute is about, to me.  Rabbi Hartman made aliyah with his family in 1971, following the intuition that the reality of Israel brings something new to Jewish life, a response to history that entails a new level of responsibility to our people on the part of every Jew.   (There is so much more to say about David Hartman’s vision of Zionism, his understanding of Israel and its relationship to Jewish values, but that is worth an entirely separate discussion – or an entire semester onto itself.)  In 1975 he founded the institution named after his father around a Beit Midrash, a study hall that was the source of conversation and exploration, for academics and intellectuals and open-minded rabbis of all stripes.
          The pluralism of the place evolved organically out of Hartman’s thought.  If we are truly in a living covenant with God, Hartman taught, than that covenant has two partners, both of whose realities must be taken into account.  Avi Sagi writes: “In contrast with Yehsayahu Leibowitz [perhaps the leading religious thinker in Israel in the previous generation], who reasoned that the believer must sacrifice his principles in the name of ‘love God and fear Him,’ Hartman comes to the opposite conclusion.”  [Let’s amplify this point for a moment.  As an oversimplification, Leibowitz would oppose, for example, any effort to make services more interesting, or more fulfilling on a personal level.  Personal fulfillment was utterly beside the point.  If a commandment comes from a Commander, and the Commander is outside of us, then how we feel about following orders is irrelevant. In fact, the more we like what we are told to do, the less it is obedience, and the more it is done for our own interests and motivations.  We follow, because we are told to – not based on who we are or how we feel.]  Hartman, as I said, came to exactly the opposite position.  Sagi continues: "Since the covenant is with a real being, it validates the existence and the principles of the real human being.  If follows from this that the covenant is a meeting between the past and the present and the present that renews the past.  This understanding underpins the development of a pluralistic worldview, founded upon respect for the believes and the principles of human beings.  The covenant with God is, in a deep sense, a covenant that validates difference and diversity.”
          And it is the embrace of diversity, the preaching of pluralism, that landed Hartman in such hot water in Israel, and in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox.  To have built an institution that lifts up the learning, and defends the dignity, of all branches of Judaism and those who are on no branch but just searching for roots… what a chiddush!  What a radical innovation! 
Friends, remember: there is really nothing else remotely like this!  Where all branches of Judaism come together in this country – uneasily and unevenly – it is often on matters of public policy or social concern.  It is not for learning, exploration, chevruta (partnership learning), and vulnerability.  It is for agendas, not growth.
The machon, the institute that David Hartman founded and which is carried forward by his son Rabbi Donniel Hartman, it is having an awesome impact in Israel and in North America.  It has transformed the teaching of rabbis and the language of lay leaders here, in the promotion of inspiration and aspiration, a visionary Judaism and a values-based approach to Israel… and in Israel as well, in terms of how Judaism is taught to secular Israelis, and how Israeli society balances the question of being a Jewish and democratic state. 
          But.  For all the impact it is having, David Hartman’s vision is, for now, an unfinished revolution.  Ein navi b’iro; there is, it is said, no prophet in one’s own city.  It remains the case, for now, that David’s writings are studied more in English than in Hebrew.  One of the more powerful voices among the young students of Rabbi Hartman, Micha Goodman, notes that Hartman probably fits into the category, along with Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, as an American voice of Judaism, better known in America than in Israel – just as the great Israeli teachers of Judaism, Rav Kook the Elder, Rav Kook the Younger, and the aforementioned Yeshayahu Leibowitz, are better known in Hebrew, and in Israel, than they are in the English-speaking Jewish world.
          Maybe.  Maybe.  But I believe there is room for the building of bridges in every place.  For a nuanced Judaism, one open to the world and steeped in traditional learning, a place that puts people first…  I believe the message will continue to spread, here… and there.
          We read in the Torah portion this week: “v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham; let them make me a Sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.”  The words may have referred, originally, to a place of prayer.  But to me, the place where I have felt God dwell among us the most… I think it is in the House that David Built.  In the Beit Midrash, the Study Hall of the Shalom Hartman Institute, where the honesty of scholars who speak from the heart, and the warmth of friends who wrestle with ancient words in partnership with each other…  that was my reminder, in mid-life… of what Judaism is, and maybe once was, and can be again.
          We lost a giant this week.  My only hope is that my words reach some of your hearts, and you hear them as an inspiration… to take in some of the teachings of this great man.  To study, to learn, to be open, and to grow.
          Shabbat Shalom.