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.

Judaism - General

God as Infinity

GOD-Yahweh-Omnipotent-Omnipotence-All-Powerful-Amazing-Power-Explained-How-it-Works-The-Holy-Bible-Infinity-Unlimited-Faith-No-Limits

“The infinite exists. It is there. If the infinite had no me, the me would be its limit; it would not be the infinite; in other words, it would not be. But it is. Then it has a me. This me of the infinite is God.” – Victor Hugo

A compilation, of sorts, of thoughts on the nature of God that I have had over the past decade…

Somewhere around ten years ago, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between a young child and their mother. While I cannot remember the exact circumstances of the encounter – where we were, what time of day it was, whether the child was a boy or girl, or even why I was eavesdropping on a seemingly private conversation – I remember exactly what the child said, verbatim: “Mommy, is infinity bigger than God, or is God bigger than infinity?”

The quiet, inquisitive wisdom of this child – no older than four – blew me out of the water. As someone who grapples with questions about the nature of God, and also with my inability to comprehend the most basic elements of mathematics, I found the child’s question to be one that cut to the core of my own theological ponderings.

The question itself has long resonated within me in the context of a separate moment of learning I had, courtesy of Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. Vising my shul to lead a study session, she presented this idea: “Thinking about God is like thinking about infinity; you can do it, but it really hurts sometimes.”

I remember being younger and trying to think of infinity and actually getting cramps in my head. It still happens. The same happens when I think about the creation of the universe. Or the size of the universe. But especially when I think about God. I find it particularly comforting that even in Judaism where we have a plethora of ways to describe God, sometimes we need to stop and remember that God is bigger than us. Much bigger. So big, that at times, we can’t even think properly. It’s humbling.

Rabbi Avraham Infeld writes about this relationship in a way that captures and directs my own thought process:

Does an individual Jew have to believe in God to be a part of Judaism? I don’t think so. I believe that practicing Judaism demands recognition of the fact that you’re part of a culture with a narrative that has God as a central player, part of a people that have had a love affair with God for thousands of years. The narrative of this relationship is probably the central theme in the culture of this people.

Being a people means identifying with a shared memory and narrative and having responsibility for its future, its renaissance, its well being. That’s what Jews are. It’s like asking “Can a Frenchman be French without being Catholic?” Of course he can, but he has to understand that being French was built on the Catholic tradition.

We are taught that a Jew—never mind how he sins, even in the sin of apostasy—always remains a Jew. Jewish culture is not based on the individual Jew’s relationship to God, but rather on his relationship to his community and the community’s relationship to God: We pray in the plural. We need a minyan.

One of the most notable biblical converts to Judaism, Ruth, arranges four words to describe her conversion, roughly translated as: “Your people are my people, and your God is my God.” The order is not accidental. Membership in the people is the necessary condition for being a Jew (I don’t know if it’s sufficient), while saying, “your God is my God,” is not a requirement.

I grew up in a home that was very much a secular home, where I often heard statements such as “I’m not sure there is a God, I’m not sure we were even in Egypt, but I’m sure He took us out of there.” In one Midrash relating to a verse in Jeremiah, rabbis quote God as saying, “Wouldst that they left Me, but not my teachings.” God is an integral part of my life, but I understand that’s not the case for all Jews. Would I regard David Ben-Gurion as a good Jew? Most decidedly yes. Was God an integral part of his life? I don’t think so.

Is God an integral part of my life? Yes! Is God an integral part of the life of progressive Jews? I hope so! A friend once shared another mathematical assessment of God’s place in contemporary Jewish life: “Faith is not math… we’re not building what the early Reformers were. It’s not all about rationality. Everything doesn’t have to equal out.”

I find it oddly beautiful that the intangible and indescribable – irrationality and infinity – can be solid building blocks of faith. Just I may have a hard time conceiving of infinity, I understand it to nevertheless be one of the building blocks of math. Try telling a mathematician that at some point, the numbers have to end.

And just as I may have a hard time conceiving of God’s presence, I understand and acknowledge that God is an ever-present part of Judaism. Judaism isn’t mathematical. It’s not always about logic and equal sums. It’s not about proofs and equations. Belief in God isn’t about what’s on the other side of an equal sign.

In her teaching, Rabbi Goldstein went on: “It’s very hard for me to think of God and how God exists in this world, but it’s even harder for me to think of a world where God doesn’t exist.” Perhaps the mathematician would respond: “It’s very hard for me to think of infinity. But it’s even harder for me to think of a world where the numbers stop.”

I may have failed math, but I do understand this equation. For me, God is what is on the other side of infinity.

Judaism - General, Travel

We F*cking Won

A week ago, 2,400 kilometers from where I normally spend Shabbat these days, I found myself in Krakow’s progressive shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. I was spending the week in the Czech Republic and Poland as part of my training to be an Educator/Tour Guide this summer, and had just spent the entire day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Needless to say, the arrival of Shabbat was a welcome respite from the downtrodden atmosphere of the morning and afternoon.

Beit Krakow meets in the Galicia Jewish Museum, which houses a collection of stunning photos of Krakow’s Jewish past and present. Singing the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, we were surrounded by pictures of the former glory of this city, and of the destruction that took place there.

When most Jews conjure up an image of Poland in their head, I would imagine that it is dark, grey, and grainy, and looks something like this:

battle_holocaust8

This is certainly the image that I had long had inside my own head. That is, until I travelled to Poland for the first time two years ago. The fact is, Poland – Krakow in particular – is experiencing a Jewish cultural revival, where the country is re-embracing its heritage as a center of modern Jewish vibrancy. In truth, when we think of Poland, the image in our minds should look something more like this:

2013-07-17-JewishCultureFestivalinCracow
Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

On Shabbat last week, as I prayed, surrounded by members of the Krakow Jewish community, mere steps away from where the mass genocide of Jews once took place, the image of Poland as a sad, grey place was further pushed from my mind.

As the rabbi chanted Shema and arrived at the paragraph about tzitzit, she walked over to a young boy – maybe two years old – who was sitting on his mother’s lap. She handed him her tzitzit. He gathered them in his hands, brought them up to his lips, and kissed the fringes.

I nearly lost it. Inside my head, a voice called out, “WE WON! You tried to kill us, but we are still here, vibrantly celebrating Judaism on the very spot where you tried to exterminate us. WE WON!”

Having spent a considerable amount of time at Auschwitz, at Birkenau, at Terezin;  seeing the remains of Judaism in Europe, I don’t minimize the importance of remembering the dark, grey history of our past there. But I don’t believe that memory of the Holocaust needs to be based solely on a dark, melancholy view of the past.

We must also look to the present and the future. Survivalism is not a compelling framework for Judaism – we have to offer meaning in the here and now. Young Jews should travel to Poland to see the death camps. But they should also see the Jews who bring their children to shul on Friday night. The should see Krakow’s Jewish Cultural Festival. They should see the JCC there, with its young, new rabbi. Doing this, it becomes more difficult to keep that grainy, grey image in our head.

And that’s a good thing. If we’re going to have an identity based on the Holocaust, it should be one where at the end, we get to rejoice and shout out for all to hear… They tried to end us. But we f*cking won!

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.

Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Reform

Men Can be Rabbis?

Crossposted at RJ.org and the NFTY blog

“Who’s that guy?” I asked my mom.

“He’s the rabbi,” she answered. I stared up at my mom, with a blank gaze on my face.

When I was eight years old, my family joined a synagogue for the first time.

Even before then, we always had a fairly strong sense of Jewish identify in our home – celebrating Shabbat every week at my grandparents’ house and observing Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and Chanukah together. From an early age, I was taught how to express the guttural ‘ch’ sound that permeates our people’s speech, and I have fond memories of helping my bubby place all of the items on the seder plate at Pesach, as I checked them off one-by-one in my own coloring book haggadah. The fact that my zaidy had given me The Big Book of Jewish Humor at a young age probably helped, too (or just made matters worse, according to my mother)

So I don’t recall struggling with any heavy questions about Judaism when my parents announced to my sister and I that we’d be joining a shul. They explained all about services, the rabbi, Hebrew school, and the like, and it all seemed fairly straightforward to me.

A few weeks later at the age of eight, I was shipped off to Hebrew school for the first time.

I was that rare breed of kid who actually enjoyed Hebrew school. Maybe it was partly because I was a dork, but I ascribe much of my thirst for Jewish knowledge to the inspirational education I received at the hands of my very first rabbi – Rabbi Nancy Wechsler (now Rabbi Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, CA).

She was a product of our URJ camps, played guitar and sang with a beautiful voice, and led worship and classes with warmth and inspiration.

She had that rare ability to make eachof her young congregants truly feel that their connection with Judaism and with God was personally meaningful, important, and unique. She saw in each of us a holy spark to be nurtured as we travelled along on our Jewish journeys. On a weekly basis, she made us feel that being Jewish and coming to shul wasn’t a boring and burdensome task, but an exciting and meaningful part of our lives.

So when I looked up at my mom and asked her “Who’s that guy?” you can forgive me for not being even more confused.

I asked my mother that question at the age of nine while sitting in the pews of a synagogue that wasn’t our own. We were attending a friend’s Bar Mitzvah, and their congregation’s rabbi had just ascended the bimah.

He… was a ‘he.’

Men can be rabbis?!” I exclaimed.

I don’t recall my mother’s response, but she assures me that it was a mixture of hilarity, amusement, mild embarrassment, and pride.

I had only known from Rabbi Wechsler, and assumed that all rabbis were women. I wouldn’t understand until years later that my then nine-year-old self had just wandered into one of the great issues of modern Judaism– women in the rabbinate and the role of women in Jewish life.

With the sudden realization that an entire new world was open to me as a male, I started pondering the possibility of a career as a professional Jew. At least that’s the version of events I tell myself today. I’m sure that nine-year-old Jesse just wanted the service to end as quickly as possible so we could get to the oneg.

But there is little doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have stayed connected to my Judaism through high school, university and beyond, and wouldn’t today be a Jewish Professional if it wasn’t for the foundation Rabbi Wechlser-Azen laid two decades ago.

So while I learned that day that men can indeed be rabbis, I’m pretty thankful that women can be, too.

Canada, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Politics

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.

Billboard Judaism, Food, Judaism - General, Travel

Hummus, Random Christian Dude, and the Israeli on his Cell Phone

I was killing some time in the Milwaukee airport today, and I broke a couple personal rules. Well not really rules, but general guidelines.

1. I enjoyed eating airport food.
There’s this little cafe there called Alterra Coffee, that has a phenomenal menu of decent food and great coffees. And the guy working there didn’t look like he wanted to kill himself. I would actually go back there even if it wasn’t in an airport. Highly recommended if you’re passing through MKE.

2. I answered “yes” when asked by a stranger, “Are you Jewish?”
When the big, burly, clearly Midwesterner sitting next to me on the concourse leaned over and asked me this – having seen my kippah – it wasn’t as though I could lie, so I answered “yes.” Not really frightened, but certainly hesitant for what was about to transpire, I engaged in a conversation with Random Christian Dude (RCD).

Random Christian Dude laid the heavy one on me right away, asking me “Are you devout?”

Now devout isn’t really a word most Jews would use to describe their observance or beliefs, but I kind of knew where he was going, so I answered “Sure.” When Jews see my kippah, they often ask “Are you really religious?” Now I know the Christian equivalent is “Are you devout?”

(As an aside – I’ve never been asked this question by an Orthodox Jew, though I imagine most would make their own assumptions about my beliefs and practices. But it’s such a loaded and specious question to begin with anyways).

RCD – who turned out to be a pretty nice, if not awkward, guy – said that he considered himself to be a devout Christian, and assured me that he had the utmost respect for Jews, Judaism, and Israel (three distinct things that, while clearly intimately related, are not one and the same), and that “of course, as you know, Jesus himself was Jewish.” Pretty standard fare for an encounter between a Midwestern Christian and a Canadian-cum-New Yorker Jew.

Then things got interesting.

Random Christian Dude asked me if I was familiar with Genesis 6. Not being able to quote chapter and verse, but being pretty familiar with the beginning of the Torah, I answered “sort of.” RCD then launched into a series of questions about my perception of the nephilim, the story of Noah, why people destroy the earth, and what God’s intentions are for humanity.

I honestly had no idea what to say. I stumbled through some words about humanity’s responsibility for one another, and that Judaism places a huge emphasis on interpersonal ethical living, but pretty much I had no idea where RCD wanted the conversation to go. Plus, I was trying to enjoy my really delicious hummus wrap from Alterra.

Sensing I was a little overwhelmed, RCD backed off as I ate and checked my email. And then he walked away. I sat on the relatively comfortable airport lounge chair for a few minutes, trying to digest what just happened. And also my hummus sandwich.

And that’s when I overheard Hebrew being spoken, and saw the Israeli businessman talking on his cell phone who had watched the entire interaction, a coy smile on his face.