Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why Are the Holidays Never on Time? (And Other Quirks of the Jewish Calendar)

          One of the most perplexing, and vexing, aspects of Jewish life, to newcomers and “natives” alike, is the question of the Jewish calendar.  Indeed, a standard joke in some circles, after hearing so many comments that “the holidays are late this year,” or the “holidays are early,” is that the holidays are never on time!  Of course they are; they are on the same date every year.  But in a system that is very hard to understand.
          The first thing to know, of course, is that the Jewish calendar wants to be a lunar calendar.  It follows the months set by the moon: 12 months of either 29 or 30 days (depending on when the sliver of the new moon appears the following cycle), for a lunar year of 354 days.
          Now, those words that the calendar “wants to be” lunar are important.  The Muslim calendar, as an example, is, in fact, a pure lunar calendar.  It is 354 days long.  That means that it is 11 (or 12, in a leap year) days shorter than a solar calendar.
          Let’s look at what this means in practical terms.  The best known Muslim holiday is Ramadan.  The holiday last for a month (and is the name of that month), but for now I am only interested in the date that it starts, in order to illustrate how this works.  If Ramadan beings on January 1 on the solar calendar one year, it will begin on December 21 the following (Muslim) year.  And then on December 10 the next year.  And so on.  It “floats” through the solar year.  Given the fact that Ramadan is observed by not eating when the sun is up, and that amount of time varies depending on both geography and chronology, if I were a Muslim I would, perhaps, prefer to observe Ramadan when it fell in Reykjavík, in January, than, say, when it falls in Riyadh, in July.  It’s just… a much shorter day!
          But there is an immediate problem, here, from a Jewish point of view.  A purely lunar calendar has the holidays float through the solar year, getting “earlier” each year.  Which is fine, except for the fact that three of the Jewish holidays have agricultural roots!  Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot may have become Pilgrimage Festivals, focusing on a journey to Jerusalem, with sacrifices and celebration there.  But what is being celebrated are the crops; these are harvest holidays.  The harvest depends, of course, on the season.  And the season is defined… by the sun.  We simply can’t have the Fall Harvest float into the Summer, and then the Spring, and so on.  That won’t work at all!
          And that is where things get so confusing.  We have a lunar calendar, which needs solar adjustments.  And so, very regularly, seven out of every 19 years, after the holidays have crept “too” early, we add an entire extra month!  A leap year, for Jews, is not an extra day, but a 13-month year.  And then, of course, the holidays feel “late” once again.  On average, over time, I suppose they are… right on time.
          So, then, that is why the holidays are when they are.  But what about the also confusing question of how long they last?  Why do some Jews, in some places, observe the major holidays (except Yom Kippur) for a day longer than do other Jews?  To answer that, we move into the realms of eye-witness testimony, mathematics and astronomy, technology and communications, and the role of strained relations with our neighbors.  (With Jews, very little is ever simple!)
          Remember that I said that the lunar months were either 29 or 30 days long?  Well, in the ancient world, at first, they didn’t know how long a month was going to be.  They waited to see, and if, on the evening after the 29th day, a sliver of the moon was visible in the sky, they knew they had on their hands, last month, a “short” month.  If not, then it was a “full” month of 30 days, and the “new” month would begin a day later.
          Why on earth does the moon matter?  Because knowing when the first of the month is… determines when the holidays occur!  You can’t really plan your Rosh Hashanah dinner in advance, if it could be one of two possible days. (Actually, the seder would be a better example.  Rosh HaShanah is extra complicated, as we will see in a moment.)
          According to our tradition, then, the judges and sages of the Sanhedrin would wait in the courtyard of the Temple, until someone came in – two someones, actually, as it had to be a “confirmed” sighting – to report whether they had seen the sliver the night before.  If it was a short month, word was sent forth, and the holidays could be set for the correct day.  Plenty of time to get ready for Sukkot or Passover – they fall on the 14th days of the month.  Cutting it a little close for Shavuot – it is on the 6th of Sivan.
          But a problem arose here, too.   There was no Internet.  No texting.  No IM.  As Jewish communities sprang up, further from the “official” policy-setting center of Jewish life, in Jerusalem, it took more and more time to get the word out, that it had been a short month the month before, that this was, in fact, already the new month.
          How to spread the word more quickly?  Here, technology came to the rescue – until tension with our neighbors and general nastiness interfered.  We would send a signal, visible from far away.  We would light fires on the tops of designated hills.
          Ah, but there were other groups who lived among us, and with whom our relations were not always so wonderful.  The Samaritans were (and are) an offshoot of Judaism, composed of a mixture of the population left behind in the north after the exile of the ten tribes by the Assyrians, with those captured populations imported by the same enemies.  They practiced a religion similar to ours – the Samaritans to this day have a version of the Torah and the book of Joshua but not the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  Small in number though they may have been, they were rivals, and we did not get along well.  The New Testament may have referred to a “Good” Samaritan, but to the Jewish reader and in our cultural context that would actually have been an exception, or a surprise!
          So what role do they play here?  It seems that, to throw off our ingenious new notification system, those pesky Samaritans would light fires on hilltops… whether the sliver of the moon had been seen early or not.  Such pranksters!  But it would mean your Aunt and Uncle would show up for seder on the wrong night!  Intolerable!
          We needed a system that did not depend on notification.   We needed a reliable calendar.  This is what I was taught: that this is the reason why we have the custom of communities inside of Israel, who could somehow get word quickly about when the first of the month really was, celebrating the holidays on the day it was supposed to be – and communities further away, outside the land, adding an “extra” day, to “cover” both possible days on which the holiday might fall.  Thus, Sukkot is seven days in Israel (as the Torah commands), but eight in the Diaspora.  Passover is seven days in Israel, and eight outside.    Shavuot is one day in Israel, and two in Brooklyn.  At least, that is what I was taught.  There is a logical problem, that being one day off would add up over time and lead to an accrued error ratio, but never mind that.
          Eventually, of course, mathematics and astronomy intervened – or at least, they should have.  We learned that we did not actually need the eye-witnesses at all, that we could figure out the calendar (the fancy word for this is called “intercalating” the calendar) years in advance, that, in fact, it worked in 19-year cycles, and thus, in theory, there was no need, at all, for a runners and messages, testimony and a differential observance based on distance.  But, tradition is tradition, and sometimes customs speak more loudly than logic.  Observance of the “extra” day in the Diaspora continued and continues.
          At least, that is, until the beginning of the Reform movement of Judaism, in the mid-19th century.  The leaders of this new, “rational” approach to Jewish life asserted early on the Torah was clear on the length of the holidays, the calendar was now properly calculated, and thus we should return to their Biblically-mandated length of observance.  Which led, of course, to the situation we have today: of Jews outside of Israel observing these days for different lengths of time, depending on what movement they belong to (or forgetting to observe them at all, in other cases).
          Just two more wrinkles in this twisted tale.  Both have to do with Rosh HaShanah.  
Do you remember that we said that there was time to get the word out about most of the holidays, even Shavuot, because of when they fell during the month?  There was one exception to that, of course.  The holiday of Rosh HaShanah begins… on the first day of the month.  So let’s imagine the picture.  One witness arrives in the courtyard of the ancient Temple, let’s say around 10 AM, asserting that he had seen the new moon the previous night.  Everyone gets anxious.  They look around.  They wait.  Finally, huffing and puffing, at 11:50 AM, comes… a second witness, confirming the account.  And then everyone looks at their watches, as it were, and realizes they have a problem.  Because that means this day is the first of the month.  And so it is Rosh HaShamah already.  And they have all just missed services.
Thus, because it is the first day of the month, and only for that reason, Rosh HaShanah came to be observed for an extra day, to cover all bases, even in Israel itself.  It is the only “extra” day observed in Israel.
And, as a result, for that reason (as well as the new presence in Reform congregations of so very many Jews who grew up in more traditional settings), many – not all, but many – Reform synagogues have added a Second Day of Rosh HaShanah as well.  Don’t expect eight-days of Passover in Reform settings (although some Reform congregants observe that holiday for eight days, not seven).  But a Second Day of Rosh HaShanah?  That is becoming more common.  In congregations where there are sequential services for the large attendance at High Holy Days, there is even a nice feeling of coming together, of intimacy, of being there by choice that lends a special flavor to the service on the Second Day.
A quick, funny/sad anecdote about Second Day of Rosh HaShanah.  In one of the congregations where I introduced the observance of this extra day, I faced an angry protest from a “classical” Reform Jew.  “Second Day of Rosh HaShamah?  That’s Orthodox!!  What’s next, rabbi? Separate seating for men and women?”  I patiently tried to calm the woman down.  “Look,” I said, “it’s optional, for those who want it.  You don’t have to come.”  “Rabbi,” the woman said, without missing a beat, “I don’t have to come First Day of Rosh HaShanah, either!”  Well, unpacking that remark is a task for a different time!
For now, finally…
Those with a careful eye will notice a very strange public pronouncement that is made on the Evening of Rosh HaShanah.  On this, the dawn of the New Year, we say, quoting the Torah: “U’va’chodsh HaShivi, b’echad la’chodesh…  On the seventh month, on the first day of the month….”
What?  What is going on?  What kind of a new year begins on the first day of the seventh month of the year?
What we have here is a relic, a remnant, a memory of two different calendar systems, layered on top of one another.  While the details matter, and are interesting, for now it is enough to say that there was an Egyptian calendar cycle, which began in the Spring (see Exodus 12:1 – “this month [in March or April] shall be for you the first of the months.”).  And there was a Babylonian calendar, whose New Year fell in the early Fall.  The Egyptian calendar gave us the numbers of the months.  Many of the names of the months, and, more specifically, the observance of a new year, come from Babylonia/Mesopotamia.  Which is why we begin our new year in such an odd way.
Hopefully, this long excursion has made clear some of the how, when, why and what behind the Jewish calendar.  If you are still confused, you are not alone.  But at least it makes more sense than it may seem, on first encounter.  And some day, then, the holidays may feel “on time” to everyone.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A New Day

Sermon delivered at
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ellicot City, MD
Sunday, July 26, 2015;  Tisha B’Av 5775

          Friends: thank you, already, for the warm welcome extended to me in this community, facilitated by my amazing assistant and your very active member, Katherine Schnorrenberg.  I am grateful, as well, for the open hand, the sincere and genuine presence of Father Tom Slawson, and his family, whose sermon at our synagogue this past Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend was so well received by my own congregation.  Thank you, as well, for this sacred opportunity: in a theme to which I will return shortly, it is only relatively recently, in all the long and twisted history of the interactions of Jews and Christians, that a rabbi and a minister would be able to share thoughts and preach to one another’s congregations.  Preach “at,” perhaps, sadly, tragically, that happened, but not “to.”
          We chose, for this day, a passage from the Hebrew Bible, from Jewish tradition which may, because of how it has played out in history and in the interpretive hands of subsequent generations, be far more familiar to Christians than to Jews.  These are the words from Jeremiah, uttered in the midst of King Josiah’s program of religious and political reform, meant, in fact, I am quite sure, not as a prediction for a distant future yet to unfold, but as a commentary for his own place, his own time.  In this case, especially, he spoke…I am convinced that he was speaking to his contemporaries, and not with half an eye to events centuries hence.   Renewal was happening around him, and he meant these words for those who heard them, at his own time:

הִנֵּה יָמים בָּאִים נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה וְכָֽרַתִּי אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָֽׁה: לא לֹא כַבְּרית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם בְּיוֹם הֶחֱזִיקִי בְיָדָם לְהֽוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי וְאָֽנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי בָם נְאֻם־יְהֹוָֽה: לב כִּי זאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אַֽחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּֽוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵֽאלֹהִים וְהֵמָּה יִֽהְיוּ־לִי לְעָֽם: לג וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהֹוָה כִּֽי־כוּלָּם יֵֽדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַֽעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר־עֽוֹד:
Behold, days are coming, declares the Eternal, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, and with the House of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors, when I took them by the hand and led them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant which they broke… But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days… I will put my Teaching, my Torah into their inmost being, and inscribe it upon their hearts. [Then I will be their God and they shall be My people.]  No longer will they need to teach one another and say ‘Hear the Eternal,’ for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me – declares the Eternal.  For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more.”
                                                                             Jeremiah 31:[30-33] 31-34

I have emphasized the degree to which these words emerge out of Jeremiah’s contemporary political and spiritual world for a reason.  It is because these words, and, indeed, these phrases, have played an important role in Christian self-understanding and, dare I say, its misunderstanding of Jewish tradition.  Indeed, the term Brit Chadasha, a “new covenant,” is the Hebrew term for… the New Testament.  And these words have been heard not as the renaissance they were meant to be, not as renewal but replacement.  This text has gone from the splitting of hairs and the spilling of ink, to the shedding of tears and the spilling of blood.
I open, today, with this sad story, this text of terror, because, indeed, this is the single saddest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, a day on which, in our tradition, the first Temple was burnt by the Babylonians, the same day on which, we are told, the second Temple was razed by the Romans, a day so sad that, once it became known to our enemies, more misery and suffering was heaped upon us intentionally on this day, to add to the woe – this is the same day in history, consciously chosen, that brought about the end to over a thousand years of Jewish life on the Iberian Peninsula.  In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and on day, that very day, Spain kicked out the Jew.
A sad day, I say.  Indeed.  And yet as we heard, “Hinei yamim ba’im… Behold, days are coming.”  Perhaps, in fact, they have already begun…   What was need not always be what will be.  The great hope we all share as human beings is that the past need not control the future!
A Jewish tradition, about Tisha B’Av.  The Messiah, we are told – and for us it is a figure or an era yet to come – the Messiah is going to have red hair, will be born as a descendant of King David – indeed, in Josiah’s line.  And the Messiah, legend and folklore assert, will be born… on Tisha B’Av.  OK, so for us, that’s late July or early August, not December.  But the legend speaks loudly, that even at the peak of sadness we hold out…a  hint of hope.
And which one of us, looking around, looking back even at the past half century, cannot but hold somewhere in our hearts that hint of hope?
A memory.  I served, for a time, as a rabbi in the remote-feeling city of Erie, Pennsylvania.  It was a community – and a congregation – that had welcomed us with open arms, but before we moved to Erie there was only one person my family knew in the entire community: a passionate, activist and intellectual nun named Joan Chittister.  As I got to know this powerful woman personally, I invited her to speak, at a Friday night service at our synagogue.  As she stood on our bimah, our altar, and began to speak, I was moved by her opening words.  She had grown up in Erie, she said, and as a young girl had walked past the synagogue and stood on her tip-toes to try to see inside… looking in, from outside, because, according to the rules of her faith, the choice of her church, she was not allowed – she was actually forbidden from coming inside.
My friends, we have made more progress in Christian-Jewish relations, in both directions, in the past half century, then in the two thousand tortured and tumultuous years before then.  Our doors are open, our minds and hearts are open, our homes are open.  We are talking to each other – indeed, often marrying each other – in ways simply unthinkable in an earlier era.
Why is this true, and how has it happened?  Is it, perhaps, simply an American penchant for the superficial, Jews and Christians getting along better with each other because both and each care less for and feel less connected to the separate communities from which they emerged?  Is it simply a secular tonic that makes our breaking bread together so much easier than it was?   Sad and scary alike to think that our common humanity might emerge more clearly, the less we are invested in our religious tradition.
But I do not believe this to be the case.  I believe, instead, that it is a more nuanced view, a deeper take and, yes, a more liberal and less literal view of our faith, that is opening us up to one another.
Two stories, both teaching new views about the Bible itself, both ways in which we can take our heritage to heart without tearing each other apart. The first is this: a number of years ago there was quite a stir, a deep sense of discomfort, when a secular, left-wing anti-religious Israeli kibbutz replaced the traditional blessing over bread, praising God as “haMotzi lechem min HaAretz; the One who brings forth bread from the earth,” with words praising the farmer, who brings forth bread from the earth.  Now, no one would deny the role of human hands and sweat and minds in making food.  Indeed, we should all be more in touch with where our food comes from, with how it is produced, with what goes in to it, both in terms of labor and content.  And it is true, of course, as the old joke says, that a nosy neighbor, going by the flowering garden of a hard-working woman, once told her that she should thank God for the good garden she has been blessed with, and she replied that she did, every day, but, frankly, one should also have seen what the garden looked like when just God had it!  There is a danger, indeed, of understating our own role in shaping the world.
And yet with all that, still, even amongst atheist Israelis there was some sense of discomfort with this move.  Because occasionally even the least traditional individuals, even those who are fully aware of the human role in planting and reaping, in sifting and in baking… had some sense that there was something – the power of the sun, the turn of the cycles, the balance of air and water and soil, something here beyond the self and beyond the human hand that borders, indeed, on a miracle.  And that an expression of appreciation for that, even using traditional words, was not the end of the world.
One of my teachers, then, made an analogy between the phrase “bread from the earth” and the linguistically similarly-constructed phrase “Torah from the heavens,” used, in our tradition, to assert the sacred sense of Scripture, the divine authorship of the first five books of the Bible.  And, this teacher said, perhaps now, even though we think we know the human role in writing and in sorting, in editing and in redacting what came to be known as the Bible, still, then, there is a sense, that there is a yearning here for something beyond, a presence sought and felt, a touch of the Divine emerging into our lives even in the midst of history and politics and power.  Thus can the Bible be, for us, holy, even if it is not wholly from the hand of God.  Thus can we take out tradition seriously, even if we do not take it literally.
And, finally, the second story.   My favorite story.  [This is basically a true story, whose affect has been so deep on me that I borrowed -- with permission -- the end result of this story as the title for my own personal blog.  This is the story as told, essentially, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and retold, here, by me.]  A rabbi, of a synagogue fortunate enough to have a pre-school.  Every year, towards the beginning of the year, he takes the kids into the Sanctuary, for a tour of what is in there.  And he saves the content of the ark, where the scrolls of the Torah are left, for last.  But one year, as rabbis sometimes do, he… well, he talked, for a really long time.  And there, in the back of the room, are the teachers, pointing at their watches, saying that the parents are coming, that the rabbi needs to finish.   So he decides to end quickly, and he says to the kids: “Okay, boys and girls, next week we will get together again, and I will show you… what’s behind the curtains.”
Well, what he did not know, of course, is that this abrupt ending would spark a big debate amongst the little people.  What’s behind the curtain?  One kid, obviously an aficionado of far too much American consumer culture – his parents let him watch too much TV – said: “When the rabbi opens the curtain next week, behind the curtain will be…a  brand new car.”  [Unfortunately, in this regard, I remind you that I was told that this is a true story!]  Another child, a pre-school skeptic, a budding nihilist, a future follower of Nietzsche or Dostoevsky, said: “ah, when the rabbi opens the curtains, there will be nothing there.”  A third kid had been to Tot Shabbat, a service for very young kids – and she correctly responded that behind the curtains were the scrolls of the Torah.  But a fourth child gave what I think was a deep, a profound, a very important answer, speaking to how the Bible speaks to us, how it can live in us and through us.  For the fourth child said, in an image I will never forget, that when the rabbi opens the ark next week, behind the curtain will be… a giant mirror.
And it is here, I believe, that the Bible speaks to us, in the fullest force of truth and power.  For when we look into its words, we see not them, and then, but “us,” and “now.”  When we hear its song, look into its pages, we can, indeed, discover ourselves.
And this… this unites us, despite all our differences… or even, not despite, but with, including, embracing, lifting up… all of our differences.  We are taught, we are told: “vayivra Elohim et HaAdam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara otam, zachar u’nekevah baro otam…We are made in the image of the Highest we Can Imagine, in the Image of God we are made...”  In God’s image, all of us, male and female, tall and short, gay and straight, thin and… less thin, rich and poor, white and yellow and red and brown, all of us in the image of God.  We look backwards and inwards, and we can discover ourselves.  We look at one another and there, we can discover God.
“Hinei Yamim Ba’im…Behold, days are coming, declares the Eternal…”  For us, for now, it is in our hands and our heart.  It is a new day, a new way, to be deep, but also open, to turn this day from sadness to joy, to turn our history from challenge to change, not to tear down but to lift up.
It is Tisha B’Av.  The Messiah, Jewish tradition teaches, is to be born today.   Let us.. let us do our part, to pave the way.

Alone and Together

          The greatness of Moses, I believe, is not (just) in the time he spent on top of the mountain.  Whatever it may mean to say he communed with God, our tradition teaches that he went up alone.  But to me, the greatness, and the life-lesson for us, is that... he came back down. 
          In Judaism, the goal is not about isolated enlightenment.  There are times for that, and it is has its role, for all of us.  But a different form of fulfillment is found in that next step.  The turn from philosophy to pragmatism. The return from looking inward.  The application of insight.  In involvement and engagement.
          I have been thinking about being alone in recent days, in different ways.  First, and less personal: I have been reading a new niche of memoirs of late – the writings of those who have left the ultra-Orthodox fold.  I am fascinated by the glimpse of a world I can only imagine, but equally moved by the courage it has taken some people to leave… and the isolation and loneliness they feel in turning away from – or having been expelled by – such an all-encompassing cocoon of a community.  The best energy, the most humane and compelling part of the ultra-Orthodox world comes not, in my view, from its beliefs, but from its impact, and the closeness and connection it brings to every moment of life.  What – and who -- would someone who leaves that world need… to restore a sense of wholeness and meaning in their lives?  And what, I often wonder, can we do, in a liberal world, to bring meaning and connection to so many parts of our own lives?
          As I am thinking about the social structure of religious communities, I am also facing a more personal issue in my own extended family.   My father fell this past November, and we have been dealing with hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and private aides, bills and taxes and insurance and Medicaid and choices about comprehensive care ever since.         We work with a social worker who helps manage his care, financial advisors and accountants, people in all different departments of his residential facility, two hospitals, two rehabilitation facilities.  The list goes on.  And in the midst of this I keep thinking:  what would he do if he were totally alone?  How would he manage?  How would we, without help?  Actually, how does anyone manage, who has to navigate this system we have… on their own.  Truly you need an advocate to deal with any aspect of our health care system.  What kind of country are we, what kind of society have we created where it is so difficult, indeed, so dangerous, to be alone?
          For this moment, I want to focus not on an immediate programmatic answer or an urgent policy proposal.  I just want to ask us to take the time to appreciate those who are around us, the human connections we have, the ways in which others are there for us… and we can be there for others. 
          Because yes, often, we are indeed alone.  For good and for bad, both on top of a mountain or in the deepest, darkest valley.  But meaning, fulfillment, connection and community come… from what we do, and from who we are, together.