Ideas, Judaism - General, Judaism - Reform, Judaism - Torah

Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon below).


 

I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.

Ideas, Judaism - General

Rabbi Google & Emergent Jewish Leadership

rabbig

“In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, [Google] also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google

Many of my fellow rabbinical students will often jokingly quip that we are training to enter an already redundant field, given how easy it is to google the answers to many Jewish questions, without the need to learn with or consult a rabbi in person.

Yes, Google has changed my job, making it more challenging in some ways. But Google is a visionary organization, and I’m not going to rant about how the internet has destroyed Jewish community life. Truth be told, the Jewish world could learn many lessons from Google’s forward-thinking perspective.

So here’s just one (or a few, really…)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has a great piece outlining how Google goes about interviewing and selecting prospective employees [see: How to Get a Job at Google]. These are the things Google looks for:

  1. General Cognitive Abilitythe ability to process on the fly
  2. Emergent Leadershipthe ability to step in and out of leadership
  3. Humility & Ownership – the ability to embrace boldness, responsibility, and others’ ideas
  4. Intellectual Humilitythe ability to embrace failure

The number-one thing that Google doesn’t look for? Expertise.

Surprise! While much of the North American professional world is otherwise obsessed with stacking up institutional leadership experiences and traditional resume-building, Google’s model upends this notion. It is one from which the Jewish world could learn much. Here’s what I think we can borrow from them:

When Google speaks of General Cognitive Ability, they don’t mean how smart one is in terms of I.Q.; they’re looking for “the ability to process on the fly… to pull together disparate bits of information.” This is a great perspective on the power of liberal, progressive Judaism. There is value and power in learning from our texts, but Jewish leadership should not be solely concerned with amassing as much knowledge as possible; we must also be able to find meaning in all of the “bits” of modern existence, and quickly respond to the needs of our constituents. More on this, and the tension with accumulating knowledge, later…

Google presents Emergent Leadership in opposition to traditional models of leadership, which valued answering questions such as “Were you the president of the chess club? Were you the vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Google doesn’t care about these things; they care about how one is able to face problems with the ability to step in and out of leadership roles appropriately. In this light, we should be less concerned with how quickly one rises to become Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and more concerned with how quickly said Executive Director is able to make room for others to lead within the organization. We should be less concerned with filling traditional institutional roles just for the sake of maintaining continuity, and instead concern ourselves with the divine Jewish concept of tzimtzum – the ability to step back and make room for others to lead.

Moshe Rabbeinu – the Jewish leader exemplar – is our prime model of Humility and Ownership. Perhaps Google turned to him for inspiration, when they wrote about their valuing “the sense of responsibility [and] ownership to step in… and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Anavut (humility) goes hand-in-hand with the previous value of tzimtzum. We should be bold in our leadership, fostering personal and communal ownership of the role of Judaism in our lives. But we must also be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, and that there is a vast ocean of good Jewish ideas being brought to the world. Liberal Judaism doesn’t have all the answers to how to live life Jewishly; there is much we can learn from the ownership models of Orthodox Judaism and organizations outside the bounds of our own religion.

It seems to me that humility really drives much of Google’s model of leadership. Friedman’s article notes that Google isn’t just looking for humility in how people make room for others, they are looking for Intellectual Humility. Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, aptly quotes that “Without humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock points to the fundamental error that many successful people are prone to: “If something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved…”

How often do we rush to blame others for our own failures? As a result of his own greatest failure, Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t get the greatest reward – the ability to enter into the Promised Land. But he ultimately embraces his failure and doesn’t try to blame others. Bock teaches us Google’s model of intellectual humility:

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

This embraces the same dichotomy of ownership and humility – we need Jewish leaders with big egos to present radical ideas on behalf of their communities. At the same time, we need these  leaders to be balanced with small egos so that when they fail, they can be open to failure, change their mind, and keep going.

How about Google’s least important value – expertise? In this respect, Google’s model sits in tension with Judaism, where we place great emphasis on learning and amassing untold amounts of textual knowledge. Google says:

“The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer… because most of the time it’s not that hard.”

This doesn’t square well with Judaism’s focus on specific textual and ritual knowledge. As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to teach others how to become experts in their Jewish lives; how to maintain ownership of their Jewish lives. This most certainly involves encouraging expertise and excellence.

But we can take Google’s understanding of traditional expertise, and reframe it in a model of Jewish leadership that shows us how to approach those who are not yet experts. We can and should value Jewish expertise and hold it up as an aspirational value. It’s just that how we encourage others to get there is not via the traditional way; it is through Google’s four-pronged approach to hiring.

We should not merely encourage Jews to amass a resume full of textual knowledge. The old trope of “this is what Jews do” is increasingly meaningless to most Jews. We need more Jewish leaders who understand this, and who embrace a model of leadership that speaks to the ways in which Jews search for answers today.

Jewish spiritual leaders should embrace the concepts of a holistic, progressive paradigm (General Cognitive Ability),  tzimtzum (Emergent Leadership), anavut (Humility and Ownership), and the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Intellectual Humility). 

In this way, we will encourage visionary ways of living Jewishly that can’t simply be found from Rabbi Google.

Canada, Ideas, Life

Canadians worth Name-dropping

“With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer Canadians paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.”

Donald Sutherland name-dropped Tommy Douglas in an interview in (the American magazine) Esquire this month. There’s also a new biography out on him in Penguin Canada’s stellar series on Extraordinary Canadians. And he popped up in the news a few weeks ago when it was revealed that the RCMP had spied on him at one point.

All of this is to say that Tommy Douglas is still a noteworthy and newsworthy Canadian twenty-five years after his death.

But he’s more than that. Douglas is a significant Canadian not just because there are still news items on him or interesting things to say about him. There are plenty of Canadians in the news each day that may be interesting. Douglas is uniquely significant because he changed Canada and he changed Canadians. He influenced mainstream Canadian society. He changed the Canadian government, he changed Canadian domestic policy, he changed Canadian culture, and – most significantly – he changed Canadian identity. To be sure, he fomented what is likely the number two item on the list of inextricable Canadian identifiers (after hockey, of course).

Douglas looked at the Canada that surrounded him – an impoverished, desperate milieu – identified the problems, came up with a solution, and enacted broad-sweeping changes. He’s what Seth Godin would call an initiator. He kicked Canada in the ass and we now wear the bruise with pride.

All of this is not to say that Tommy Douglas was a saint. To be sure, the Canadian healthcare system has its flaws and is in dire need of updating. Moreover, this is not my meager attempt to say profound things about Douglas that have already been said by people more eloquent and learned than I. While I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I don’t think I have anything to add to the Canadian canon at this point.

So this is all to say – or rather, ask – something else:

Where are all the Extraordinary Canadians? Where are the initiators? Where are the identity makers?

The Canadian (yet once-illegal in Canada) zero-emission Zenn Car
There are certainly many Canadians out there doing newsworthy, cool, and interesting things (although if you Google “Interesting Canadians,” the results come up pretty slim). But newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not equaling extraordinary these days. Newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not cultivating identity.

“Whither Canadian Identity?” is that quintessential existential question that we Canadians ask to hold a mirror up to our national self when our national inferiority complex flares up. But I’m not lamenting a lack of Canadian identity. I’ll leave that to George Grant. Besides, there’s a Wikipedia article on Canadian Identity, so I think we’re safe in that department.

I’m lamenting the lack of Canadians of late who have risen up and done something that has galvanized our country in the identity department. I’m lamenting the dearth of Canadians who have on a national scale shifted the way we think. I’m lamenting the absence of Canadians who can be added to the Wikipedia article on our national identity.

To be sure, just take a look at the Canadians who have been deemed extraordinary and fit for publishing by Penguin, or the finalists from the CBC’s 2004 series, The Greatest Canadian. On both lists, with a few exceptions (or perhaps just one – Terry Fox), the identity-building Canadians did the body of their work most recently thirty to forty years ago. For most, it’s been over half a century.

Yes, Sidney Crosby did do that thing in Vancouver last year, and The Great One and Don Cherry were indeed finalists on The Greatest Canadian. But hockey already occupies the number one spot on our identity list. Unlike Mr. Douglas, the trail was already blazed for Sid the Kid (insert some clever remark about the zamboni clearing the ice for him). Unlike Fox, Gretsky and Cherry had and have institutions, managers, and paychecks supporting them.

It’s been quite some time since Trudeau, Montgomery, The Group of Seven, McLuhan, Pearson, and the lot.

It’s been quite some time since a Canadian has risen up and done or said or created something that has inspired Canadians in a unifying way; in a way that has become as much a part of Canadian Identity as Hockey, Universal Health Care, Tim Hortons, the GST, a National Inferiority Complex, and not being American.

To be sure, there’s a certain temporal perspective gained from looking back on ourself, which contributes to the lists’ foci on historical figures. But it’s 2011, and we’ve been hyper-connected and hyper-self-aware for awhile now. Isn’t it time we started catching up to ourself? If that Rebecca Black girl can reach millions of people with a ridiculous YouTube video (I won’t do it the justice of linking to it), and we identify en masse with new memes every week, certainly the market is primed and ripe for someone to do something worthy of capturing us.

I’m not denying that Canadian identity exists. Certainly it does. But it isn’t being flexed by anyone. With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.

In that painfully Canadian way, I’m aware that all this has the potential to come across as complaining and whining about a problem without presenting a solution. After all, Tommy Douglas didn’t sit around and blog, he got off his own ass and kicked Canada in our collective tuchus. But I don’t (yet) have the bully pulpit of our Parliament or the platform of a national newspaper, so maybe this is just to vent or call attention in a limited way to something that I – as a Canadian – am invested in.

I’m looking for Canadians who can make us shift the way we look at ourselves for the better. I’m looking for Canadians who have the drive and power to give our country a much needed kick in the ass.

I’m looking for Canadians worth name dropping.

Ideas

An idea

There should be an app or service that collects all the links to news articles and blog posts that you’ve ever shared on Facebook or Twitter, then goes and fetches the original pieces. It would then sorts them by date, theme, topic, site, etc., creating a personal newsmagazine-time capsule-archive of sorts.

Facebook does offer you the ability to download your entire profile, but this would be a much more specific service.

I’ve been sharing links to interesting stories for nearly six years. I’d love to go back and check everything out and see how my interests have evolved.