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Seek Out the Light

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the rabbis ask a deceptively simple question:‘Mai Chanukah?’ ‘What is Chanukah?’It’s almost as if they’re not sure what it is, or why we celebrate it.What they really want to do is to get to the essence of Chanukah.And so they explain that when the Maccabees were victorious over the Syrian Greeks, they found only one cruise of oil for the menorah—enough only to last one day, and it burned miraculously for eight days.This, of course, is a far cry from what we read in our siddur—that the miracle was that God empowered us, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, and a great military victory was won by the Jewish people in reclaiming the Land of Israel from its defilers.Lots of ink has been spilled explaining how the Talmudic rabbis wanted to de-emphasize the military aspect of Chanukah in favor of a more spiritualized one.As adults, we can all nod knowingly at each other, acknowledging that, while the miracle of the oil makes for great children’s…

The Power of Membership

Why be a member at a synagogue?The answer to this question is not at all as simple as it was a generation ago.Once upon a time, belonging to a synagogue was a given in American Jewish life.There were a host of unspoken bonds that linked us Jews to one another—ethnic bonds, Yiddish language and culture, first and second-generation immigrant values and aspirations—and synagogues were our gathering place.We may not have necessarily believed in God.We may have been secular in every other aspect of our lives.We may have attended synagogue only on High Holy Days.But synagogue membership was sacrosanct.By and large, we didn’t belong to country clubs, to the uppermost echelons of professional societies, and we didn’t attend the old-boy elite universities.Shul was where we gathered and affirmed that we belonged to something important, timeless and meaningful.Shul was where we accessed our time-honored traditions, where we felt special, where we could marshal our resources to look out for each …

The Gateway to Heaven

Not long ago, I googled the question ‘What is prayer?’I got some lovely answers.‘The act of communicating with a deity,’ said one source.Another source said that ‘prayer is the practice of the presence of God.’Lovely!Another Catholicsource said that prayer is‘…a form of … talking to God or to the saints.”What struck me as most interesting about googling prayer was that it wasn’t until the fourth page of google entries that I came to a Jewish definition of prayer.I saw lots of Christian definitions, lots of New Age definitions, Muslim definitions, Sikh definitions.Finally, I came a Jewish definition that simply referred to prayer as ‘a pouring out of the heart.’A nice definition!A good start.We can all sense, in all religions, that prayer is some form of communication between the heart and the Divine.We all can sense that prayer is deeply personal.But what exactly makes prayer Jewish prayer?So many of us come to synagogue wondering about Jewish prayer.We open our siddur.Ancient and com…

Eternity in Disguise

We have a very strange relationship to time in our society.I once read somewhere that we use exactly the same language and metaphors to refer to time as we do to money:we save time, we waste time.We spend time, we invest time.Time is precious and must be put to good use and not squandered.It’s very interesting!Money is so concrete.Yes, there are many abstract elements in our monetary system, but by comparison, money is something based on resources in the physical world.It’s something that you could, at least theoretically, hold in your hand.Time, of course, has nothing concrete about it—but we assign it concrete status, as if the watch on your wrist actually tells you how much time you “have.”But is time, like money, something that we ever actually have at all?Strangely, the more you think about it, you realize that the answer is ‘no:’There’s nothing material about time at all.It’s never, in fact, a commodity in our lives.And yet we all very unconsciously assume that time is ‘somethin…

Finding Peace in the Eye of the Storm

I have an article in the latest issues of Moment Magazine....
http://momentmag.com/Exclusive/2009/2009-12/200912-Spiritual_Moment.html

The Face of God in the Face of the Stranger

The name Avraham means ‘exalted father of many nations.’Avraham lives and acts in the primordial history of our people, and all the peoples of the world.His life IS Torah.His actions serve as the template upon which later commentaries and code books would canonize sacred law and righteous behavior for all generations to come.Watch him closely, emulate his every act, and you too will be a tzadik, a righteous human being.Just look at him in parashat Vayera.He has just circumcised himself, showing his commitment to God, and is recovering, in pain, in the heat of the day.Looking up, he sees three strangers approaching in the distance.Without skipping a beat, he leaps up—and even the text of the Torah is filled with quick action-verbs: he runs from the entrance of the tent.He bows.He hastens to the tent to summon Sarah.He runs to the herd to get a calf to be served, and then he waits on his guests.He is all flurry and action for the sake of total strangers.Watch him!Notice his total alacri…

Evolutionary Judaism

I love Conservative Judaism.It is a great blessing to the Jewish world.I believe in its message and its wisdom.I know it has real limitations, yet it is poised to address the needs of the Jewish people in the 21stcentury.For decades, our movement has wisely embraced tradition while acknowledging the importance of change as generations go by.Most significantly, I appreciate Conservative Judaism’s embrace of honesty, truth, and intellectual integrity.When we study texts of Torah, we don’t suspend disbelief.We don’t ask our adherents to check their critical thinking at the door.We invite our communities to apply their intellectual vigor and the breadth of their learning from many disciplines—Jewish and non-Jewish-- to discern the meaning and the context of our teachings.We are Halakhic:we uphold the binding quality of a Jewish law that has brilliantly grown up over our 3,000 year heritage. We respect that tradition, and seek to change those laws and practices judiciously, only when caref…

Being the Earth

It’s hard not to love the character of Noach.He’s always depicted as that dotty little old man who builds the ark, and collects the animals two by two.His ark graces the walls of countless nurseries and preschools.It might come as a surprise the Noach doesn’t quite come off so well in the Jewish tradition.Rashi explains that Noach was only a tzadik bedorotav, which means that, while he is called a Tzadik, it was only in relation to his generation (which, of course was all wanton sinners) that he looked good at all!The midrash (the rabbinic story) in Tanhuma goes even further, and calls Noach a ‘sinner,’ because he did not publicly speak out against the sinners of his generation, and only retreated into the safety of his ark.Pretty harsh words for poor old man Noach!But this is all very strange, because if you look at the literal text of the Torah, it says that Noach was Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah bedorotav, that he was a righteous and whole-hearted man in his generation.In fact, no other …