Sunday, November 23, 2008

Change is Good -- What does that Mean?

If there’s any one subject that is on all of our minds these days and weeks, it’s “change.” Change is in the air. We’re eager for ‘change’ as our new president takes office. We’re eager for ‘change’ as we think about economic challenges. We’re eager for ‘change’ as we begin a new era at Adas Israel as well. People tell me that they feel a positive energy in the life of the synagogue, and that ‘sense of change’ is electrifying. This is all wonderful, but what exactly do we mean by ‘change’ anyway? It seems to me that the all-encompassing desire for change at our synagogue, and in the whole country is the feeling that we just want things to be different. It’s the feeling that the old ways have been spent, they’ve had their moment, they no longer work, and we need new ways of doing things in order to fix all the problems that the old ways have created. We all agree that “Change is Good,” but for many of us, there is an undercurrent of deep anxiety behind the desire for change. Our desire may reflect a deep sense that ‘who we are’ and ‘what we have’ now is bad, unacceptable, and insecure.
Naturally, when we think about the economy, societal ills, and war—yes we have deep challenges now that need to be addressed. When we contemplate our synagogue and its services and programs that need new energy, ideas, and updating—again, we have lots of work cut out for us. In all these areas of life, “Change is Good!” But I would like us to take another look at ‘change,’ and develop a new relationship to the meaning of change itself.
The Book of Ecclesiastes says, “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build…”(Ecclesiastes 3:1-3) Change and the phenomena of transience and impermanence have been enshrined in the deepest wisdom teachings of our people for centuries. The more deeply we look into the nature of all things, we can see that change happens whether we want it to or not. The very nature of this cosmos is change itself.
We want to live in harmony with the natural order of things. When we can change, we are free to grow and evolve, to adapt and discover new ways of living and surviving from generation to generation. So when we say that we “want” change, we’re really saying that we want to feel empowered and open to possibilities. We don’t want to live in societies or communities that make us feel that we cannot live up to our greatest potential for happiness.
The Truth is that “change” is what is here and now. It is, always, the only thing that is here and now. The positive energy and excitement about change that many of us are experiencing in our community comes from how we are working with the energy of change these days. We can be fearless even as things change because, indeed, change is good! Change is a fundamental aspect of Truth, and as you might have heard me mention, the Truth is good! Challenges appear to be ‘problems’ when we see them as ‘unchanging’ unless we ‘fix’ them. They linger as ‘problems’ when we resist them and fight against them. The Truth is, when we work with the energy of the apparent ‘problems’ of our community, they reveal their own solutions all by themselves.
All throughout our community, people are naturally finding new ways to experience connection and community, and that positive energy is coming not from me, but from the people themselves. Whether it be a group of dads in the Gan HaYeled community who want to hang out with me and study some Torah after they put their kids to bed, or another group of religious school families who want to join together in each other’s homes for Shabbat and holidays—they are all finding great blessings in who and what they are right now.
Rabbi Yechiel of Alexander transmitted this teaching in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Simcha Bunim: “Consider this in light of the verse: "You have made my life just handbreadths long" (Ps. 39:6). This is like a person who is measuring and pulling a rope that is seventy cubits long. No matter what he does, he only has that handbreadth of rope he holds in his hand. Similarly, the past is gone, and the future has not yet arrived and we have only that handbreadth of life and action in our possession. This is our life: we possess only the present moment.” (Yismach Yisrael, by R. Yerachmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Danziger. Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater)
The possibility of change is neither in the past nor in the future. It is literally in our grasp, in our “handbreadth” of life that we live right here and right now. When we embrace our community, our times, our challenges just as they are right now; when we allow the natural process of adaptation and evolution to unfold before our eyes fearlessly, then the excitement that we’re feeling in our community will not diminish. We will notice a community that is always growing and thriving in spirit and enthusiasm, even as times and generations come and go. Change is good because what we have today in our community, in our world all around us, is indeed very good.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's all about Community

Things are beginning to change in our congregation. If you have come to our services recently, you may have noticed a different kind of energy on the bimah, different orders of prayers and blessings, different kinds of teachings and formats. All of these changes reflect some fundamental values that guide our new vision: Truth, compassion, Halakhah, respect for our traditions, Justice, and the Torah that can be found everywhere. When I think about synagogue life, I am guided by an over-arching concern about community. When people come to services at Adas Israel, I want everyone to be struck by a palpable feeling of belonging, of being welcomed, of sensing that we’re a part of something powerful and transformational and loving. I want people to feel like they have come home to something that is familiar and joyful, even if they have never been to our synagogue before. Anyone who enters this building--from ‘regulars’ to new-comers--can always be greeted with warmth and a smile. My goal is that when anyone takes a seat in any of our services or minyanim, he or she feels welcomed and not alienated. This means that our services are marked by a feeling of openness and acceptance, with an energy that is up-beat, spiritually engaging, and participatory. Our teachings and discussions must continue to be on a high intellectual level as befits our community. But I also want us to be open to experiences that are emotionally moving and inspirational. I favor services that can even be playful: now it’s dignified, now intellectually engaging, now fun and musical, now serious, now spiritually uplifting, now challenging, now filled with laughter and joy.
Since I believe that everything that happens in synagogue is about the community, I relish coming to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays not entirely sure what’s going to happen! I don’t mean to suggest that I arrive unprepared. I mean that the community itself will reveal its Torah to me. Every day, every moment that we’re together can reveal a new way to relate to and engage one another. The community itself will chart the tone and feeling of our services and experiences. Sometimes the community wants more intellectual challenges, sometimes more spiritual insight. My goal, together with the other clergy, is to hold onto a sense of spontaneity and responsiveness to where we are right now.
With all of this in mind, my job is to create the proper conditions where this joyful, textured, and participatory kind of experience can be possible. Together with the Religious Practices Committee, I have already instituted some changes in the way services are conducted in the Charles E. Smith Sanctuary service, particularly when bnai mitzvah are celebrated. I am a big believer in the wisdom of the time-honored flow of our services. When we simply let the prayers flow in the way they are laid out in the siddur, with minimal interruptions except at ‘teachable moments’ and moments of natural breaks in the service, this sense of a relaxed, natural spontaneity and engaged community participation can arise together with the ebb and flow of the prayers themselves. So, for example, bnai mitzvah parents present their children with their tallit and bestow blessings over their children at such natural break-points at the beginning and end of our Shabbat services. I often walk off the bimah and present teachings standing on the same level as the congregation. This may seem unusual at first. I am deliberately working to overturn the conventional understanding of the bimah as the only place where ritual happens, where the congregation is like an ‘audience’ watching a ‘performance’ on the bimah. By teaching on the same level as the congregation, I’m working to communicate the opposite message: that what happens in our services is not about the clergy on the bimah, it’s all about the community itself. I like to use the analogy of an orchestra when thinking about the relationship between a bimah and the congregation. It’s not that the congregation is the ‘audience’ to the bimah. Rather, we, the clergy on the bimah, are the ‘conductors’ of the ‘orchestra,’ which is everyone in the seats of the congregation. You are the music. You are show, the main attraction. We on the bimah are here to celebrate you, to guide you to discover the meaning and Torah that you already are, and to remind you that you have a spirit and a connection to heritage that is worth celebrating!
Change isn’t easy. It takes time, and it must be handled judiciously and sensitively. Most importantly, change has to be handled with a willingness to be flexible, to try new things, and to let go of old ways that don’t properly serve us any longer. As the rabbi, I, in turn, have to be flexible and willing to listen and to be responsive. Ultimately, I hope that we can be the kind of community that is always willing to try new approaches and experiences, so that we can continue to evolve throughout the years to meet the changing needs of our community. We can be brave and open-hearted enough to try some ideas that might not work, and to let them fail if necessary. This process can make way for new approaches that can work even better for our community. It really is an exciting time for us in our congregation. So long as we remember that everything we do is about the community itself, we can continue to grow together and stay healthy and vibrant for generations to come.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

We all learn Torah from One Another: Relativism?

On Rosh HaShanah, I talked about how I do not regard the Truth as a "problem." This means that as a rabbi, I do not consider the congregation to be a "problem," but rather the solution to all problems. I explained that, while I am a passionately observant Conservative Jew and I love teaching about observance and Jewish learning, I respect the Truth of any member of the congregation who is not interested in observance or in Jewish learning right now in his or her life.

In fact, I am happy to welcome each and every member of the congregation into the community exactly as they are, no matter how observant or knowledgeable anyone is or is not. I believe that we can "learn the Torah of who you are" together as a community. I talked about how there are many minyanim and programs and points of entry into Jewish life in our congregation, and how this is a good and healthy thing. May there always be many ways to be Jewish in our community without anyone judging anyone else, deeming them somehow "not enough," or "not good enough."

Someone in my congregation, upon hearing this, wondered if this approach implied a kind of "free-for-all," that perhaps this understanding reflects an approach of pluralism-gone-wild, or a moral relativism where there are no particular standards or measures of what constitutes a unified Jewish community.

My answer is that I agree that pluralist approaches can be dangerous. Pluralist values, where all voices are heard and respected, indeed could devolve into "free-for-alls" where all points of view are deemed equally valid, and thus, no structure at all survives.

But a free-for-all is not a foregone conclusion. I believe that there is such a thing as healthy hierarchies of values that can play out in a pluralistic congregation. As a Conservative synagogue, we are guided by the values and principles of our movement. My rabbinic role, in addition to my teaching and pastoral duties, is to fulfill the function of "Mara D'Atra," or the final interpreter of Jewish law for the congregation. It's my job to work together with the lay leaders of the community to fashion principles, policies, and guidelines the preserve the essential halakhic and Jewish character of the community.

To uphold pluralist values means that at times, we will sanction very different kinds of expressions of Jewish life in one synagogue. Upholding unified guidelines and policies based on Jewish law and tradition will sometimes be quite a challenge, but it's a challenge that I and the lay leadership are very much up to. In fact, this is the halakhic (Jewish legal) process at its best, as it has always functioned. It means that I will have to stay alert to ensure that everyone is welcomed, and that we have standards and healthy boundaries that hold the community together. Judaism has always been a dynamic religious system that seeks to uphold traditions while finding within its discourse the flexibility to meet the demands of changing circumstances and new generations.

And indeed, this means that there are limits, and those limits do change and evolve over the generations. The beauty of Conservative Judaism is that it understands and respects this time-honored process that has ensured our survival for centuries. We're open to new expressions of Judaism, but we only change judiciously, with the most profound respect for all traditions that have sustained us.

I certainly would not promote a community where any and every approach or behavior has equal moral validity. While there are Jewish people who may feel uncomfortable with observance or other Jewish ideas or traditions, this is not the same thing as people who may uphold immoral or unethical values. It is also possible that people may have certain religious ideas or practices (like Jews for Jesus) that go beyond the pale of what is acceptable in our community. I believe in a congregation where everyone is welcomed--from the pious to the atheist, from the observant to the secular. This is not the same thing as saying that any and every behavior by members is equally "good" or "acceptable" as a congregational practice. Luckily, we always have the measuring rod of Jewish tradition as interpreted in the Conservative movement to figure out what counts as legitimate and not legitimate in our community.

Ultimately, even if you are not comfortable with Jewish observance at this moment in your life, there are wonderful ways for you to express your Jewish soul in our congregation. I would like us always to endeavor to create the right conditions for you to find your place here, however you "do Jewish." Indeed, we will have our standards and respect for tradition, but when we're doing it right, you will feel embraced and "at home" here, whoever you are.

The Truth is Good: What about the Holocaust?

I gave a sermon on Rosh HaShanah about Truth, and the importance of pursuing Truth as the only means to finding healing, meaning, purpose, redemption. I talked about how "Chotmo Shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emet," "The seal of God is Truth." (B. Shabbat 55a). I taught about how the Truth, reality itself, is "Tov Me'od," "very good," and that our greatest act of faith in Judaism is to believe in the goodness that can be found in all of our experiences of Truth, no matter how painful or difficult they may be to face. (In a few days, I will post a link to the sermon that will be up at the Adas Israel website--www.adasisrael.org).

After hearing this sermon, someone asked me a wonderful question: what about the Holocaust? This darkest hour imaginable in human experience is undeniably true! Doesn't this teaching suggest that--God forbid!--we should see the Holocaust as "good"?

I am so grateful that this question was asked. In no way am I suggesting that we use our relationship to the goodness of Truth as a reason to deny the horrors of human pain, suffering, and tragedy. Quite the opposite. I believe that when we look squarely at Truth, no matter how painful that Truth may be, only then can there ever be any hope of healing and justice.

I do indeed teach the goodness that can be found in all Truth, but this does not mean that I or anyone else can qualify all past suffering as "all good." When I teach about the goodness that can be found in the Truth, it is a teaching about a radical acceptance of Reality in all its awesome Truth and power. I believe that it is only when we accept the undeniable reality that something as awful as the Holocaust did happen that we can transform our relationship to the past and find the good NOT in that it happened, but in how we respond to this terrible Truth in the present moment.

The Holocaust weighs on many of our hearts like a stone. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a heart that is clenched close, in fear or hurt or anger at the Truth will always feel weighed down by that stone of Truth. But a heart that has the courage to let that Truth in can be transformed. So I ask us: what happens when we let the Truth of the Holocaust itself into our heart of hearts?

I can tell you that when I do that, the first thing that I experience is unbelievable anger and rage. I want to rail against this Truth. It shouldn't have happened! The next thing I feel is a crushing fear. My God, the whole world betrayed us! In a heartbeat, so-called friends and neighbors turned in innocent men, women, and children--my own people--to die! But no matter what the anger, no matter what the fear, I keep my heart open to the Truth of the Holocaust. Eventually, I reach a place where I begin to realize that no matter how much I struggle against it, this doesn't change the Truth of the Holocaust. I come to realize that when I inhabit a place of constant anger and fear, I'm pushing away the Truth. I begin to see that there's just no reason anymore to torture myself with anger or fear because a Holocaust happened. It happened. It is Reality. By constantly feeding my anger and fear, I'm only succeeding in making myself a victim of the Holocaust's brutality in this present moment. But when I can just come to understand that it really happened, eventually the anger and fear begin to transform into a deeper feeling of pathos. I begin to inhabit a place of compassion for the suffering and murder of millions of my people and others.

So now what do I do in the present moment with the fact that the Holocaust has happened? I look around at my world here and now, and I am grateful that the horrors of genocide are not happening now to my family and loved ones, to my people. But I keep looking beyond my immediate experience, and I see that the seeds of hatred, antisemitism, and bigotry exist in the world, even in my society. I see genocides still happening in this world. Millions still suffer in this world. This too is an awful Truth.

Yes, there were Nazis and their collaborators. There are perpetrators of genocide and terrorists in the world right now. It is all Truth that I can either push away and suffer over, or I can open up my heart to it and understand it as the Truth, and learn from it what to do next.

When I talk about the "goodness" of pursuing Truth, it is a goodness that comes from this radical acceptance of reality as it is right now. I can see a "goodness" in the fact that acceptance of the Truth means that I am not gripped in anger and fear and rage over what I cannot change or control. I can see "goodness" in that, with the Truth squarely in front of me, I am motivated by wisdom and compassion to act for justice instead of anger or fear.

I believe that when we act for justice NOT from anger and fear, but from a place of compassion, then we can do far greater good in the world.

The Truth of Nazis and other perpetrators of evil means that I feel an ever-deeper motivation in my life to create conditions where that kind of twisted inhumanity can never happen again.

The Holocaust was not "good." But I am indeed grateful that my radical acceptance of the Truth of the Holocaust motivates me to a commitment to social justice here, in Israel, and around the world. It motivates me to teach Torat Chesed, the Torah of Kindness, to teach over and over that when we affirm kindness, compassion, and justice with one another we are creating the world anew, a world without Nazis or terrorists.

L'Shanah Tovah!

Welcome to my blog! I hope to use this blog for a variety of reasons: to share periodic thoughts and reflections, to respond to questions posed to me by members of Adas Israel Congregation and others, and to post sermons and other writings and articles.

Most importantly, I would like to use this blog as a tool for helping my congregation and others to explore the beauty of what is True (hence the title: "Dover Emet: Speaking the Truth"), and to find new ways into acts of Chesed (lovingkindness) and Tzedek (righteousness).

We live in an era where Judaism must evolve together with the Jewish community. I very much hope that this blog will be a useful forum for us to explore together what an evolving Jewish expression could be, and what that means to us.