Judaism - General, Judaism - Reform, Life, Philosophy

At least I don’t have to wear a Sheitel

photo-852It’s been two weeks since I’ve shaved. The itchy, irritating, and ever-growing mound of hair protruding from my face is starting to get annoying. Friends at work are asking about it, and I’m starting to get stared at on the subway. That means something in New York. And let me just say at this point that necks should not be allowed to sprout hair; it’s more than a minor inconvenience. It’s weird.

Some have asked if my folicular growth experiment is an homage to my country’s national sport and its related superstitions at this time of year. No, it’s not. I wish it were, though. On Monday night, I was asked by one of my youth groupers if I was just trying to fit in more at a concert I’ll be seeing in June. I laughed.

So the beard growth – for those who aren’t familiar with the Jewish obsession with hair – is one of the customs related to the Counting of the Omer. I’ll say flat out at this point that I’m not mourning any ancient plague or series of destructions. That’s not why I’m growing out the beard. I’m not mourning. I listen to music during these 49 days, and I continute to be a generally happy person. Although there wasn’t a new LOST tonight. That’s a downer.

The reason I let my hair grow is that it is a physical, bodily, intimate symbol of my being a Jew (intentional use of the Present Active Participle form of the verb “to be” ). For 49 days, part of my physical being exudes Jewishness. It’s more than wearing a kippah. It’s something I can’t just take off. Now as a Jewish male, part of my physical being always exudes Jewishness… but I didn’t have any choice regarding whatever was exuded 8 days after I was born. During this time period, I make the active choice to be present with my Judaism.

And what exactly does growing a beard have to do with Judaism? Good question. Like LOST, Judaism has this funny thing with time. 6 days you shall do this, 2 days you shall not do that, these days you shall not eat, these days you shall drink a lot, during these hours you shall do this, at the time when you can see the light of the sun you shall do such and such. And then there’s the custom of not shaving for the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot.

What’s it really all about?

For whatever reason you choose to buy into, ultimately our ancestors decided that this was a time period when people shouldn’t be engaging in celebratory actions (read: don’t shave, because we don’t shave when we’re mourning, and if we’re not celebrating, then we’re morning). My personal favourite reason for not celebrating at this time is that the period between Pesach and Shavuot comes at the time leading up to the grain harvest in Israel. Our ancestors’ lived a deeply agrarian lifestyle, and their livelyhood and existence was entirely dependent upon the grain harvest. Not wanting to jinx anything or count their sheaves before they hatched, they treaded lightly – avoiding any early celebrations, and going so far as to adopt tribal mourning customs.

So today – in this time – while I can celebrate that Trader Joe’s was not as busy as I thought it would be today and I could harvest me some kickass Mexican avocados, I can also remember that this was not always the case. In fact, for most of our history it was the exact opposite. We were dependent upon the seasons and the rainfall and the dew and the sun and the power of God, and we knew we had to be mindful of that. Time has changed…

Judaism is a religion with practices deeply intertwined with the space-time continuum; a religion that understands that the laws of nature and the laws of physics are part of the laws of halachah. Allow me to wax cliche: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven” (Kohelet 3:1). Cliches are cliches for a reason; they’re often truisms, too. While Steven Hawking, Albert Einstein, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Pete Seeger discover the quirks of time, it’s God who ordains them. And those are some d(D)udes you don’t want to mess with. I may not understand the mechanics of time, or know how to till the soil, but I am able to say “for this time, in this place, I am and will be reminded of the essence of my Jewishness. I can take 49 days and remember that Judaism is a religion that accesses God through the creation of the Earth, and through the experience of time.

That may sound hokey or hippie or maybe even Buddhist. Sure, I’m Jewish and always will be. It’s part of my essence, and I don’t really need to be reminded of that everyday. But it’s nice to physicalize the essential every now and then. How often to we get a chance to internalize and externalize at the same time? As my wise friend, Andy, is currently relaying to me through instant messenger: “We’re too settled in our world of technology, too desensitized. At the end of the day, I think people just need to take a moment to say “damn.'”

I’ve got an itchy beard.


Life, Philosophy

What’s in between?

I was sitting on the train platform today, staring off into the distance of tracks waiting for the train to come. No train. Yet. Then I looked down at the tracks in front of me. A glass bottle sitting. Waiting. It might shatter when the train arrives. Then I look off into the distance of tracks that I will soon hurtle down. And then… for a brief, fleeting moment, I am a philosopher, scientist, astrophysicist, mathematician, and poet. So is life. The train track is quite possibly the most obvious symbol of the existence of time. And the platform is where we live our lives. At some point or another, the train comes hurtling into the station. We get on the train, and are whisked off to another platform where we await another vehicle to come down another line of existence.

So time travel exists. All time always exists in all places. It’s just a question of which tracks and trains we make our homes for fleeting moments.

It occurred to me today that there is an entire pantheon of books that I have not read.

And at some point or another, I will read some of them.

They exist at varying points in the past. They will exist – stretching indefinitely – into the future. And at some fortuitous point, we will intersect in a literary space-time nexus. These books exist in the past, present, and future. And when I pick one up to read it, I will inevitably travel through time.

I was thinking all this in the course of ten minutes or so as I waited for a train back to New York from Chappaqua. Two different worlds existing at two different speeds. No wonder I feel nauseous when I get off the train at Grand Central. I was thinking all of this as I sat, waiting for a train, holding a book in my hand. A book I have never read. Up until that point.

The night before, in a bookstore where I gave express instructions to my companions not to let me spend money on books (I have something of an uncontrollable literary fetish), I picked up Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve never read it. But I’ve been meaning to. A work of the past, it existed in the future for me.

And so, today, on the track, I was whisked into the future, or the past of this book came forward to me, as I opened it and began to read.

Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time…
All moments, past, present, and future always have existed, always will exist.

There are eerie moments in life. Slightly beyond coincidence, but most certainly not nearing fate. In between, there exists a plane of eeriness that is loaded with meaning and significance. Eerie that I would ponder such time travel literally seconds before opening a book that focuses on it.

Can it be said that it was fate that I should buy that book and choose to read it on that train platform at that moment in time? If it was, then the entire notion of choosing which path to travel through time is negated. I’m not a fan. Or can it be said that it was entirely a coincidence? If it was, then there’s no meaning in the crossing of paths. If it’s just chance… there’s no bigger picture.

I’m a fan of the bigger picture. Of trying to see it. Of trying to paint it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it’s just a little too big. Our field of view is never large enough. It seems we can only ever see just so far in either direction down the tracks.

So not fate that Vonnegut should finally enter my life today. But not coincidence, either.

Something in between.

What is that something in between? I suppose that’s what Sartre, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Plato, Kerouac, and Dostoyevsky are doing on my bookshelf. Trying to figure out what’s in between.

Judaism - General, Philosophy

The Mathematics of Faith

Full Disclosure: I failed grade eleven math.

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve had any real formal education in the mathematics, so I’m not going to be preaching any sort of math related truths here. Or maybe I am. I guess it depends on how much faith you have in math.

As I was skimming through blog posts of old, I came across some teachings about God by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein that really jumped out at me a few years ago while she was teaching at my shul. I’m thrilled to have stumbled upon them again, as they fit in with a post I had been planning. Here’s what she has to say:

“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. Or 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.

This eerily parallels a discussion I was engaged in earlier this summer at Kutz, where Rachel Petroff posited a brilliant and beautiful notion:

“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.”

Odd that the intangible and indescribable can be solid building blocks. Just as we have a hard time conceiving of infinity, it is nevertheless one of the building blocks of math. Try telling a mathematician that at some point, the numbers have to end. And just as we have a hard time conceiving of God’s presence, it is an ever-present part of our Judaism. But 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.

Rabbi Goldstein goes 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.”

The mathematician responds: “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.

Life, Philosophy, Politics, Theatre

Money and Gunpowder

There are two people in a debate about what are the most pressing factors concerning a stable society. One of the pair, a military industrialist, is driven by money and might. He believes security, fiscal responsibility, and military might to be the most important pillars upon which a country functions healthily.

The other debater, a Christian man, is driven by his religious values. He believes that getting a liberal arts education, teaching ethics and morals, and supporting the poor are the most important pillars upon which a country functions healthily.

The two men spar words, arguing over what religion exactly entails, how it should influence leaders, how it should influence romantic relationships, and what to do with your religion when you’re in a position of power.

These two people are not Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. Nor are they Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. They are Andrew Undershaft and Adolphus Cusins.

Who are Andew Undershaft and Adolphus Cusins?

They are characters in George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara. It’s one of the plays I’m working on right now. And it was written in 1905. For those of you who can’t do math, that’s one hundred and three years ago.

It appears that either Shaw was a great prophet – a possibility which I’m not entirely willing to rule out – or there are certain historical/philosophical constants which govern the cosmos. And one of those constants is the divisiveness in opinion as to who is responsible for caring for the constituents of a country. Shaw’s characters might as well have been ripped from this morning’s newspaper headlines. And I’m willing to bet that they will ring as true and imminent a year from now, and then some.

I’m not going to preach as to which of the two I believe is in the right. Or… in the “left” as I would have it. I’m going to share one of the characters’ dialogues, just to shed a little light on the state of the world today. Anybody who thinks we’re at the lowest of lows, living in a time when our governments are riddled with corruption, our leaders incapable of leading, and trillions of dollars being spent on death and destruction should take a look at Shaw.

Things haven’t changed that much:

“There are two things necessary to Salvation… Money and gunpowder. That is the general opinion of our governing classes. The novelty is in hearing any man confess it.”

“Is there any place in your religion for honour, justice, truth, love, mercy, and so forth?”

“Yes: they are the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.”

“Suppose one is forced to choose between them and money or gunpowder?

“Choose money and gunpowder; for without enough of both you cannot afford the others.”

“That is your religion?”


Life, Philosophy

No lamenting lost individuality

In this world, we largely define ourselves in relationship and opposition to those people and things around us.
Individuality is sham – a misnomer that doesn’t do justice to the fact that we live in an hyper-connected world.
Don’t get me wrong – uniqueness does exist. I have my own unique characteristics, beliefs, abilities, opinions, and thoughts.
But it is impossible to be an individual in this world. There is nothing singular about life anymore. Perhaps some monks and hermits can truly say that they are individuals, but for those of us living in the concrete jungles, our individuality has been lost.

And that’s nothing to lament.

To be sure, it’s a good thing.

This all dawned on me this past weekend, as I hopped on the metro and travelled out to the ‘burbs to see a dress rehearsal for a fine production of Arthur Miller’s Enemy of the People. It’s being put on by the large Jewish theatre company here in Montreal. I live in an almost entirely French neighbourhood on the French side of town. Thus, my walk from my apartment to the metro was surrounded by the usually Frenchness of this locale.

A half hour later, as I got off the metro, I entered a different world. It looked a bit like North York in Toronto. Kate remarked that it looked like Halifax. Funny how suburbs all over the world look exactly the same. Ahh, suburbia. The Jewish theatre is, of course, located in a largely Jewish suburb, which meant that I was now in a much more familiar world – Hebrew adorned billboards, an Israeli flag flew outside the local JCC, and Mezuzah’s adorned the houses. I’m home!!!

Of course, it was nice to be in a place that I identify much more with than the Francophone neighbourhood in which I live (and love living in!) At the time, I felt that being in the Jewish neighbourhood was reflective of a huge part of my individuality. Here I was, one of the only Jews at my theatre school, going off to the Jewish theatre with school friends. But — upon further reflection — it occurs to me that it’s exactly the opposite of individuality. I may be unique (albeit slightly so) in my position at school, but that doesn’t make me individual in my being. This little journey across town reinforced my connection to a different group of people – it didn’t strengthen my individuality.

A few hours later, again on the metro, the hockey game had just finished and hundreds of Habs fans piled onto the metro cars. All of a sudden, I felt quite singular again. I made jokes about yelling out cheers in favour of the Leafs, then running for my life at the next stop. But in truth, I had this feeling of being an “individual” again – being surrounded by an entirely opposing culture. (On that note, anyone who doesn’t understand the diametrically opposing forces of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens should educate themselves. Read: Dave Vaisberg, you can’t be a fan of both teams!) But as I’ve thought about this seemingly innocuous event, it paralleled my theatre experience… my status as a leafs fan is not part of my individuality, it’s part of my connection to a much larger institution.

An intriguing revelation to have. I’m still not entirely sure it can be said with 100% certainty (can anything?), but I challenge others to come up with examples of true individuality.

Life, Philosophy

Instant Gratification, Part I

Who thought a commercial could contain some pretty deep life philosophy? Let alone one for Hyundai, at that…

Instant gratification has us in a stranglehold.
So much so, that we don’t want to fix things anymore. We just replace them.

Don’t like your nose? Get a new one.
Don’t like your job? Get a new one.
Don’t like your spouse? Well, get a new one.

Whatever happened to commitment? To standing by our decisions?

Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Reform, Philosophy

In the meantime…

On Friday, hours before Shabbat was to arrive, I dumped some thoughts out of my head and onto this blog. Knowing that they were provocative and not merely some light reflections, I expected some sort of reaction from people. But I had no idea the kind of response it would elicit. But then, that’s the whole point of this internet thing, isn’t it.

I spent Shabbat mulling over it all. I’m still mulling. Obviously, a response is on its way. In the meantime, for those that are interested in the topic of commandedness, I recommend the following:

  • Duties of the Soul: The Role of Commandments in Liberal Judaism,” edited by Niles E. Goldstein and Peter S. Knobel.
  • Various articles in “The Reform Judaism Reader,” specifically Emil Fackenheim’s Nothing is More Important (1954), Jakob Peteuchowski’s Experiencing the Commandment (1961), and Arnold Jacob Wolf’s The Need to Be Commanded (1967). Obviously, the entire chapter on The Halachah of Reform, with notable articles by Rabbis Mark Washofsky, Herman E. Shaalman, and David Polish, is of great importance.
  • Liberal Judaism and Halakhah” edited by Walter Jacob.
  • BZ’s article on Limmud NY’s Reform Halakah panel is also insightful.

    As for me, a response is coming… very soon.

    And I’m still very much a Reform Jew, as I indicated in my previous post.
    Take a look at the last paragraph.