Friday, December 29, 1995

Why Spirituality is In, Religion Out (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, December 29, 1995

Is there a difference between “spirituality” and “religion?”
This is not a mere exercise in rhetorical hair-splitting; I've been coming across this question quite often lately. The theologian Arthur Green wrote recently of his dismay over a personals ad found in this newspaper, written by a woman who described herself as a "DJF, 34. Spiritual, not religious." For those in my line of work, the distinctions drawn by that woman are illuminating -- and troubling.

Check out any bookstore and you'll see aisles devoted to what people have come to know as "spirituality," with subjects ranging from "New Age," to Eastern traditions to Native American lore to psycho-spiritual healing. The section marked "religion" is usually hidden in a remote corner and is always minuscule in comparison.

The best seller lists are filled with books on spirituality, soulfulness, seeking, questing, prophesying, myth-making and near-death, post-death, and other out-of-body experiences -- things that religion used to be all about. Books like "The Celestine Prophecy," "The Road Less Traveled," and "Healing and the Mind" have turned the publishing world upside down. There's even a book out called "The Soul of Dogs." Films are into spirituality big-time, especially Disney, which has in consecutive years brought us African animism in the "Lion King" and Native American environmental spirituality in "Pocahontas."

So what is the difference between all this and what people perceive as "religion?" Why does that DJF feel so alienated form her synagogue? In a nutshell: Pocahontas talking to an enchanted tree and living peacefully among the birds and forest animals: that's spirituality. Pocahontas receiving a dues statement from her local synagogue: that's religion. The Lion King feeling whole, purposeful and connected to the entire scheme of things, the "Circle of Life," is spirituality. And the Lion King forgetting how to lay tefillin and therefore never coming to minyan because he feels real uncomfortable: that's religion.

I serve on the clergy team of our local hospice organization. Recently, the staff tried to come up with a clearer understanding of the distinction between "pastoral" and "spiritual" care. In this seminar and in accompanying articles, spirituality was defined as "the gas, the organizing center of one's life which emanates and radiates from within," and religion as "the vehicle, an expression of culture; a set of predetermined standards and practices."

Religion is seen as a lifeless shell, spirituality, which can exist independent from religious structures, is the true source of vitality. The explosive proliferation of 12-step groups, some of which have a pro-spirituality, anti-religion bias, tells us even more about the perception that our institutional religious vehicles have run out of gas.

We in the religion biz have got a bad image problem. But while we continue to bicker and back-bite, everyone else is capitalizing on the seemingly unquenchable thirst for meaning out there. Even a computer company got into the act recently, classifying the ease of setting up its latest hardware as an "out of box experience." With people clamoring for transcendence as never before in our lifetime, with the normal fin de siècle and end-of-millennium religious frenzies building, and with hucksters everywhere cashing in on this massive selling of soul, we can't even get Pocahontas to come to shul.

And why should she? There's passion in nature. There's life. There's God -- in that tree and beyond it. And what does she get in shul? If she's lucky, an ark opening on the High Holidays.

It's easy to put down all these trends as neo-pagan fads, which, like so many over the centuries, will have their day and depart. Long after the names Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers have passed from memory, people will still be chanting the Sh'ma and studying Rambam. But to rely on that is to ignore the tides of Jewish history. For we have had our religious revivals too, those moments when spirituality (i.e. God) and organized religion were seen as incompatible, when the hot passion of the one overtook the frigidity of the other and eventually transformed Judaism. Check out the book ofJob, the 7th century BCE reforms of King Josiah or the early Pharisees' critiques of the Temple-based traditions of their era.

The last great Jewish revival was the rise of Hasidism two centuries ago. The next one is going on now, but more likely at your video store than at your synagogue. A quick shave, some hair dye and a few weeks on the treadmill, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the Baal Shem Tov and Pocahontas.

At Sinai, our ancestors said, "Na'aseh V'Nishma," "We shall do and then we shall understand." It is the passion of the doing that will help bring understanding. "Doing" doesn't just mean the performance of rote ritual, but the act of cleaving to God as an expression of one's whole being. The early Hasidim dubbed it "Hitlahavut," from the Hebrew root "lahav," "to set ablaze."

We've got to restore the "gas" to our sanctuaries, classrooms and boardrooms. Mainline Protestantism, discouraged by declining church membership, has recently tried to rediscover passion in its practices. American Judaism, which for too long desired to become Protestantized and succeeded all too well, now must follow suit with its own critique of pure reason.

The rabbi can no longer be seen as the Jewish Answer Man, the embodiment of rationality, diplomacy and calm. If we are to reunite religion and spirituality, it is the heart of the spiritual leader that must be exposed for all to see, not the head. The music of Jewish spirituality must rush forth from the rabbi's soul, as well as every congregant's. Otherwise the rabbi risks becoming part of the shell and the synagogue an empty, hollow echo of a shell that once was filled with God, but no more.

All the talk about Jewish continuity seems like pointless chatter when the answer is so close at hand. Let's stop the talking, put down that grant application, go outside, listen to the spirit of God residing in the trees, and silently hum a b'racha. While we continue to commission surveys and blow hot air, the answer is just outside our windows, blowing in the wind. The equation is simple: Spirituality, God, is the pure oxygen that can ignite our souls. Religion, Judaism, is exactly the same.

Spirituality and Religion (Jewish Week)

Dec. 29, 1995

Sometimes the most profound truths are discovered in the unlikliest of places. The Jewish theologian Arthur Green saw this earlier, when he came across a personals ad in the New York Jewish Week. It was written by a woman who described herself in this way: "DJF, 34. Spiritual, not religious. Seeking like-minded JM, etc."

This young women should indeed be of interest to us. Green sees her as an icon of our age. We can assume that she has a pretty good idea of what she means by "spiritual, not religious," but do we? Let's speculate about her. You can meet her, along with a great many other Jews, at an Ashram retreat, where she goes for a weekend of yoga, massage, a lecture on spiritual teachings, healthy vegetarian food and conversations with like-minded people. You will not meet her at your synagogue, Green notes, from which she continues to feel alienated. But she fasts and meditates on Yom Kippur, a day that has some special meaning to her. She reads both Sufi and Hasidic stories. She used to go to Shlomo Carlebach concerts. Passover with her family is still a boisterous, "totally unspiritual," as she would say, affair. But one year her folks were on a cruise and she got to go to a women's Passover Seder, and she liked it, although it was a little too verbal for her tastes.

Spiritual, not religious... I hear it all the time. Who is this woman who wrote that personal ad? What turned her off? And what could turn her on to Judaism again? Why did she feel so alienated from her parents' synagogue? Why did she leave it so far behind? And how can we get her back?

Her problem is a reflection of her generation, to be sure, those in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Generation X. But it really is endemic to society as a whole. Look at any bookstore and you'll see aisles devoted to what people have come to know as "spirituality." Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin went into a Barnes and Noble one day and counted three bookcases for Judaism, three for general religion and Christianity, two each for Bible, and nine bookcases for New Age. The New Age menu is diverse, including astrology, psychic phenomena, tarot, goddess worship, witchcraft, out-of-body experiences and reincarnation, angels, Satanism and the occult, the channeling of spiritual energy and faith healing, yoga and transcendental meditation, holistic health and healing crystals.

Spirituality can mean all of these things and more, everything, except for what we do in a church or synagogue. Spirituality books are at the tops of all the best seller lists. Films are into spirituality big-time, especially Disney, which in consecutive years brought us African animism in the Lion King and Native American environmentalism in "Pocahontas."

So what is the difference between all this and what people perceive as religion? In a nutshell: Pocahontas talking to an enchanted tree and living peacefully among the birds and forest animals: that's spirituality. Pocahontas receiving a dues statement from her local synagogue: that's religion. The Lion King feeling whole, purposeful and connected to the entire circle of life: that's spirituality. And the Lion King forgetting how to read Hebrew therefore never coming to services because he feels real uncomfortable: that's religion.

I serve on the clergy team of my local hospice organization, and recently the staff tried to better understand the difference between pastoral and spiritual care. In this seminar and accompanying articles, spirituality was defined as "the gas, the organizing center of one's life which radiates from within," and religion as, "the vehicle, an expression of culture; a set of predetermined standards and practices."

By this definition, religion is seen as a lifeless shell; spirituality, which can exist independent of religious structures, is the true source of vitality. The explosive proliferation of 12-step groups, some of which have a pro-spirituality anti-religion bias, tells us even more about the perception that our institutional religious vehicles have run out of gas.

We in the religion biz a have a big problem. The market is booming, but the customers aren't heading in our direction. A recent Gallup poll shows a marked increase in those who say spiritual matters are important in their lives; but the same poll shows that church affiliation and attnendance are down. Spiritual themes are everywhere; even on Madison Avenue. A computer company got into the act recently, by calling its latest hardware an "out of box experience." The Washington Post reports that interest in the power of prayer and divine intervention is clearly growing and even gaining some credibility as an area of scientific study. To document this trend, the Post noted that for the first time ever, the National Institute of Health is funding research into the effects of spirituality. In the fall of 1993 a fledgling alternative medicine department at the NIH awarded a $30,000 to a researcher hoping to measure the impact of prayer on the recovery of drug users.

With people clamoring for transcendence as never before in our lifetime, and with the normal fin de siecle and end of millennium religious frenzies building, and they are, and with hucksters everywhere cashing in on this massive selling of soul, we can't even get Pocahontas to come to services.

And why should she? There's passion in nature. There's life. Theres' God. And what does she get in synagogue? If she's lucky, an ark opening on the High Holidays.

We've got to restore "the gas" to our sanctuaries, classrooms and board rooms. Mainline Protestantism, discouraged by declining church membership, has recently tried to rediscover passion in its practices. American Judaism, which for too long desired to become Protestantized and succeeded all to well, must now follow suit with its own critique of pure reason.

My point is that Judaism is a spiritual entity, that the dichotomy drawn by that woman from the personal ad, and by so many of us, is a false one. This vehicle is not an empty shell. So how do we get that woman, and Pocahontas, to come through the sanctuary doors?

...Bringing Pocahontas Back to Religion

One way is to knock down these doors. We have to begin to bring God out of this sanctuary and into the world around us. Not just the trees and flowers, but into our actions, attitudes and even our language. We must understand that the sacred resides everywhere, if only we would begin to notice it.

In her book, "Ordinarily Sacred," Lynda Sexson, tells the story of an only man who showed her a china cabinet filled with items related to his deceased wife. This was a sacred box, she says, in the tradition of the Ark of the Covenant. Emily Dickenson had her forty nine ribboned packets of poems, carefully written and stored. We all have these sacred books and boxes. If a hurricane were heading toward our home, and we could take away only one thing, what would it be? My guess is that most of us the answer would grab a photo album, a video tape of the last wedding, a box of letters, a notebook of thoughts, a volume of dreams, these are the things that connect us to something deeper than our own lives, to other people, to our ancestry, to our dreams. This is the stuff of spirituality. The stuff that makes us laugh and, most of all, cry. The stuff that guides us and terrifies us for the thought of losing them. The ordinary things -- that are religious.
Psalm 90 says it all, "Teach us to number our days, that we might attain a knowing heart." When I began writing in a journal twenty years ago, that daily exercise became a profound part of my Judaism. These twenty books have become my sacred canon. My collection of old newspapers, or match books from restaurants, and my videos and photos, these help me to connect the dots of my life, enabling it to have meaning. And that's all from Psalm 90. That is spirituality -- that is Judaism.

Thomas Moore, who has made quite a splash with his two books, "Soulmates" and "Care of the Soul," writes in the latter, "The spirituality that feeds the soul and ultimately heals our psychological wounds may be found in those sacred objects that dress themselves in the accoutrements of the ordinary."

At a rabbinic retreat I attended a few years ago, my group performed a cultural inventory of the ordinary things that have become part of our sacred world. My assignment was to write a museum-style description of the hidden meaning found in a box of Golden's blintzes. Next time you're at the store, look at it closely. There is actually a note from Grandma on the box. Grandma is telling you that she made these blintzes just for you. When you open this box and fry these blintzes -- for godsakes please don't microwave them -- Grandma's kitchen will appear somewhere in the recesses of the mind, or at least the nose. OK, so the blintzes are mass-produced, and OK, so I believe the company was bought out by a Japanese conglomerate, it doesn't matter, because the box says Grandma made it. And you know, when I eat Golden's blintzes, sometimes I cry, because I think of my Bubbe's potato kugel, which has passed form this earth never to return.

So the box is part of my spiritual life as an American Jew, as are shlocky New Years cards and wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadahs. These little things help along the process of imbuing the world with God's image, because Godliness is nothing more than the creation of order, and meaning where there was chaos before. And Jews have another word for how we create order out of chaos: kedusha -- holiness. As Jeffrey Salkin put it, "Holiness is where spirituality becomes Judaism." As Jews do Jewish things, these acts increase our sense of holiness, and through them we connect ourselves to our history, to God and to that ubiquitous, ill-defined thing called spirituality.

Spirituality is also about social action. Spirituality is about healing others, it is about giving selflessly, it is about sharing deep insights and terrifying fears, it is about glowing candles and incessant questioning from children. It is about life and death and life from death -- in short, it is about everything that organized religion does twenty four hours a day,
And -- it's about dues, and leaky roofs and staff hirings, and yes, although I shudder to say it, it's about politics too. Spirituality is about forming a community and making it work. One night while Web-surfing I came across a discussion group on the subject of why people don't affiliate with synagogues. I think that woman from the personals ad must have been one of the contributors -- there were about fifty in all. They recited the entire litany of depressing things we all know too well, the high cost, the cliquishness that turned them off, the politics.

We all detest dirty politics. But that is exactly the point. The synagogue has to be the place where the politics of the place enhance godliness and spirituality. There is a deep spirituality to politics, when it works, when it brings people together. Unlike much New Age spirituality, Judaism requires community. You can't just escape to India to seek a guru. You've got to stick around and make it work here, where it is most difficult, within the community. But when we succeed, and it is so hard to succeed, when the end result is a community where people share basic values and truly care for one another, that can produce the greatest spiritual high of all. It is a feeling of belonging that we all crave. It is one I know we can achieve. Once we've created that, dues and other mundane matters become far less distasteful; in fact, tzedakkah (charity) becomes an obligation we gladly take on. And Pocahontas leads the parade with her little blue box.

Spirituality is about all the little things we do every day, the choices we make that tilt the world just lightly more in the direction of life. The little questions become profound moral decisions. Like what do we eat for dinner? Judaism stands for life, but says, OK, you can kill some animals, but only in ritually-prescribed ways. The Torah always comes down on the side of life. So eat meat, it says, but beware, because animals are sacred, and even more sacred is man, the next step up.

Spirituality is about how we use language. To speak in cliches is to use dead language. I weigh carefully each word that I write or utter. And to use language as a weapon, to gossip, that is truly the way of death. The ancient sages indeed equated gossip with murder, spiritual murder, which kills the image of God for three people: the subject, the teller of the tale, and the one who hears it.

In Judaism, every decision is one of life and death, there is nothing that is morally neutral. If we become couch potatoes, that is choosing death. So working out then becomes a choice of life; a profoundly Jewish spiritual act.

Albert Einstein put it best: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is. Choose."

As I've grown, I've come to recognize these miracles more and more. I suppose having children does that, to a degree, but it is also one of the blessings of my job. I recognize them because I see so many. I see so many supposedly ordinary people doing extraordinary things, people who hold off the angel of death for one final night or hour so to see some loved one through to the achievement of a personal milestone. I see the miracle of dedication allow people with average ability to soar to incredible heights. I think that's why Cal Ripkin became such a national hero this month. Gary Rosenblatt wrote in The Jewish Week, "Cal Ripkin, playing his position day in and day out with grace and efficiency, confidence and calmness, reminds us that our task is not to perform miracles but to keep our focus and do our little bit, one day at a time." And in truth, that's how miracles are made.

Within each of us is a soul that can be ignited by the pure oxygen of organized religion. We can go outside and join Pocahontas and listen to the spirit of God rustling in the trees and that too can set our souls ablaze. The early Hasidim called it "Hitlahavut," from the Hebrew word "lahav," "to set ablaze," as a means of cleaving to God with all our being.

This is no empty vehicle then, the sanctuary, that we invite our friend from the personals ad to enter again. We agree with her completely. Spirituality, God, is the pure oxygen that can ignite our souls. Religion, Judaism, is exactly the same.

Friday, November 24, 1995

God on Trial

The Jewish Week, November 24, 1995

Just as the world finally began to shake itself of that year-long melodrama known as the "Trial of the Century," we are soon to face a court proceeding that could top it.

When all the evidence is assembled and Yigal Amir and his cohorts answer to the assassination charges, the real defendant on the docket will be God.

Underlying this case will be two radically different views of Judaism: one backed by rabbis so certain that they know God's will that they are willing to sanction homicide to sustain it, and the other less certain of God's true intentions but far more in line with Judaism's talmudic roots. The vast majority of Jews, including rabbis of all denominations, uphold this flexible, non-fundamentalist perspective. Until now, Israelis and their government have never issued a direct challenge against the messianist-fundamentalist strain. Now they will have to.

Yigar Amir, the confessed assassin, may plead innocent by virtue of divine imperative. The prosecution will then have to be ready to answer basic questions: How do we know that God did not want Amir to pull the trigger? How can we be so certain that the God of Israel didn't see it is an abomination that a Jew was willing to give sacred soil away to the murderer of Jews?

The response to these questions will involve expert testimony, but this time there will be no DNA evidence or bloody gloves. This time, the experts paraded onto the stand will be rabbis and theologians, and the goal will be to deligitimize these deviants so that the government can then proceed to snuff them out when the case is closed. As much as the Eichmann trial educated the world about the horrors of the Holocaust, the Amir trial will be Israel's way of renewing the integrity of Judaism in the eyes of its own populace.

For too long, most secular Israelis have turned a blind eye to Jewish fundamentalism, because there were always more pressing needs. They had little to fear from most haredim, who seemed to care less about the West Bank than the other types of banks needed as repositories for hefty yeshiva subsidies. And the settlers, well, they were just modern-day chalutzim (pioneers), a little overzealous, perhaps, but they meant well.

Sorry. Messianic fundamentalists are dangerous creatures, even when they are ostensibly on our side. So now Israelis will finally begin to purge themselves of this ideological cancer in their midst. The trial will clearly demonstrate that the Rabin killing was caused less by the escalating verbal violence between left and right than by the nation's incubation of a virulent strand of Judaism that was then allowed to run amok.

God will be on trial in Israel, and in the end, God will win. Whether or not the other defendants find a way to evade justice, Israelis will finally begin to take seriously the need to fight fundamentalism on its own theological turf. That means learning why Judaism is flexible enough to allow for the exchange of land for peace. That means inculcating pluralistic values to the secular masses. Ultimately that also means learning why Jewish values are too precious to be left in the hands of the rabbinate.

One of the most incredible things about Yigal Amir for myself and many of my colleagues is that here is a man who actually listens to his rabbi. His rabbi allegedly permitted his deadly deed. Most rabbis I know can't even get their congregants to eat fewer cheeseburgers. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

I would shudder to meet a congregant who took my every word as, pardon the expression, "gospel" truth. One reason I had to use that expression is that Judaism has no real parallel. Our tradition is far too wary of human fallibility to allow us to place complete faith in the decisions of any human, even one steeped in wisdom, even a rabbi. I would never want to deny another person the chance to use his God-given faculty of reason.

Just as Jews everywhere have been shaken from our apathy in the face of fundamentalism, so have many been galvanized toward the fulfillment of Rabin's final dream of peace. With one dramatic, epoch-making event, the chain of hate just might finally have been broken.

Undoubtedly, there will be more terror, as the extremists see the hopelessness of their plight and become more desperate, but it will be much more difficult to hate Arabs after so many of their leaders turned out to be such menschen in our hour of darkest grief. It will be hard to erase the image of a bare-headed Yasir Arafat, looking a little like old Uncle Abe, paying a shiva call to Leah Rabin.

In contrast, Bibi Netanyahu's flailing defensiveness has rendered him politically maimed, soundbitten by his refusal to say, with simple dignity, what all of us wanted to hear: "Yes, I was at those rallies, and I can't tell you how ashamed I am that I didn't do more to stop it."

With nationalist bumper stickers being replaced by "Shalom Chaver," with the endless procession of Israelis past their slain leader's grave, and with the dovishly defiant "Shir L'Shalom" ("Song of Peace") enjoying the greatest musical revival this side of the Beatles, a dynamic shift is occurring in Israel.

It's occurring here, too. For the first time since Sabra and Shatila, my Hebrew school students are connecting to Israel on the most human level, and with a deep pride that has been masked for a generation. In death, Rabin has become the hero that he never quite was while alive. Among adults, the spontaneous outpouring of grief has pierced that tough hide of assimilation, a casing that not even 39 Scud missiles could penetrate.

We've all done so much crying these past two weeks. Even Henry Kissinger cried. Our hatred toward Arabs and cynicism toward Israel have been washed away. And we, although washed out, are more ready than ever to give peace a chance.

Yigal Amir will lose the war that his ideology spawned. But it will not be enough to convict him alone. We've got to discredit his God too, as our God (we think) and our ancient sages (we know) would want us to.

Friday, June 16, 1995

Who's The Boss? (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week , June 16, 1995

How many bosses do you have?

I've been told I have 700, or one boss per family unit of my congregation. That makes no sense, though, because how many family units are of one mind about anything? Let's multiply that number by three, then, and a conservative estimate would be that I've got at least 2,100 bosses.

But to be fair about it, some have moved to Florida, so of the 2,100 bosses there are only about 2,000 full-time bosses.

Then there are approximately 12,000 Jews in my town who, while they aren't my congregants, claim to know how everyone else's shul should be run.

Then there are the leaders of my movement and other rabbinic colleagues, who are interested in how I put their ideology into practice; and the founders of my congregation, who although deceased still have a rightful say as to how their life's work is evolving.

Then let's add those who read my columns and desire to teach me a thing or two.

That brings our total to somewhere around 25,000 bosses, or, purely coincidentally, exactly 100 times the number of plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians at the Red Sea, according to Rabbi Akiba.

Now since we're including the deceased, how about hundreds of generations of Jews who gave their lives for the heavenly yoke that now rests on my shoulders?

And what of the great rabbis of the Talmud?

What of the Six Million?

What about Moses?

What about God?

Speaking of the One Upstairs, what about my wife?

And what of my two children, asleep upstairs every night at 10:30 when I creep in through the front door, wondering aloud whether I've betrayed my own family in the interest of promoting family values?

What about Israel, which needs my active support, and all the worthy fund-raising organizations that rely on my passions and integrity to get their message across?

What of my other homeland, America, which desperately needs non-fundamentalist religious role models to rescue it from the dangers of the Ralph Reed Right?

I've got plenty of bosses, but for me it all comes down to three -- exclusive of the Ones Upstairs.

- The aforementioned "700 Club," my congregants.

There is no question about it: They hired me, they trust me, and I work for them. The relationship is far more complex than employer-employee because, while they instruct me, my instructions are to lead them. But that's no different from Bill Clinton's relationship with his 250 million bosses, or any hired CEOs. What is different is that I also name them, marry them and bury them. I encounter their children at several stages of growth and am deeply involved with them at the most emotion-saturated times of their lives. I am seen by many as their primary link to the Source of their Being, their community, their own parents and to immortality.

All this, and I am accountable to them if anything goes slightly awry.

- The as-yet unborn.

A chief of the Iroquois nation once said, "We are taught to plant our feet carefully on Mother Earth because the faces of all future generations are looking up from it."

That's an interesting twist on the Cain and Abel narrative. When Jews look at the Earth, we hear the cries of the deceased; but Native Americans look forward, routinely measuring the impact of their actions not on the next generation but several generations hence.

I'm capable only of looking ahead two or three decades, and even then the picture is frustratingly cloudy.

But I know that every decision I make influences the Jewish world my grandchildren will inherit and whether or not they will be Jewish at all. When I'm tempted to relax standards for the convenience of a congregant (and to avoid conflict), that grandchild yanks at my conscience and says, "No, you can't tell him it's OK to have the bar mitzvah party on the Goodyear blimp. What will become of me?"

- Myself.

Not myself now, but myself 25 years from now, the one who will be looking back at a full career. I want to be able to say that I made a difference, that I did all I could to seek my destiny and fulfill it.

It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is also the word for worship. Our work is nothing less than our supreme offering to God, whether we are a rabbi, doctor or welder. Each of us must try to discern the cry of the times, perceive this mission and act on it. I see my task as being analogous to that of the ancient biblical prophet, of whom Heschel wrote, "He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet. His images must not shine, they must burn."

Nikos Kazantzakis posited that if we are each a bow in God's hands, then there are three kinds of prayers uttered by three kinds of souls. The first says, "Draw me, Lord, lest I rot"; the second, "Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break"; and the third says, "Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break."

If I may combine metaphors, a quarter-century from now I want God to have spent all the burning arrows in the quiver marked "Hammerman." For when all is said and done, I will have to answer to no boss.

But I will have to account for all those unused arrows -- and for the bow that refused to be overdrawn.

Thursday, May 18, 1995

Recreating Zeyde's Living Room (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, May 18, 1995

Normally at this time of year I present my own version of the State of the Synagogue. Since we've been taking our temperature quite a bit recently and since the incredible things that have gone on this year really speak for themselves (and what else can you say about a year that includes visits form the likes of Colette Avital, Yitz Greenberg and Debbie Friedman, dozens of great programs and wonderful new spirit of can-do), I'm using this year-end space to discuss some of my vision for Beth El. The following is adapted from a recent sermon, entitled "Zeydeh's Living Room," and it explains, I think quite clearly, just what I feel is needed for us to fulfill our responsibility to our membership, our community and our people.

The idea came to me in the midst of a recent Friday night dinner for our young families. Nearly 150 were present, all ages; and with the kids running around, the adults chatting, the grandparents kvelling, I began to understand what it must have been like for my father in Brooklyn when he was growing up, when every Shabbat he would kibitz with dozens of cousins at his Zeideh's home. Back then being Jewish meant having the kind of organic, extended family that most of us pine for. But here we had it, if but for a fleeting evening.

And the screwy thing was that in our educational scheme, this program was seen not as an end in itself, but as a tool for encouraging the families to do the same things at home. It's known as "family education," the heir apparent to "continuity" on our ever-fluctuating priority pedestal. Of the dozens of families present that night, maybe four or five will expand their Shabbat home ritual based on this program; but scores wanted to know when we could do it again, at the synagogue. That's when it hit me: family education is fine, but what we need most of all is not a chicken in every Jewish pot on Friday night and a Kiddush in every cup, but an extended cousin's club in the shul.

The fact is that most of these families won't do it at home every Shabbat, and many can't. Even if they have time to make the chicken, even if there are two parents present, even if both are Jewish, and even if a grandparent miraculously appears from time to time, from where will they import the sense of wholeness that obliterates generational boundaries and allows people to relax and share the love they all so wish to share? Zeydeh's living room can now be realized only on a larger communal scale.

The family as we once knew it hardly exists anymore. Surveys show that actual two-parent families with children, devoid of divorce, widowhood and all the other forces that have detonated this nuclear unit, constitute a minority of Jews in America. How can you expect true bonding with Judaism to occur in this setting? But while we're still talking in "Leave it to Beaver" language, the people we're addressing are living in a far more fragmented world. By placing the burden of Jewish cultural transmission on the parents, we're actually rendering it inaccessible to their children.

We're talking to single parents who don't have time to breathe and we're telling them to whip up a hearty dinner every Friday night, preferably with company. We're talking to couples who scratch out two incomes and barely see each other during waking hours, and we're telling them that their kids will stay Jewish if only they would build a Sukkah in the backyard. We're saying that we're willing to be partners, but that the fate of Judaism is ultimately in their hands. And we're telling the children the worst message of all: if your parents aren't willing to buy into the program lock, stock and barrel, you, my friends, are lost. If your parents can't hack it, there's not much we can do about it.

On that fateful Friday, I realized (what I sort-of knew already) that what these families need is not the training to be Jewish at home, but more chances to do it here, in a non-threatening, multi-family setting. They don't need instructions, they need a support system. The route to greater commitment is not through persuasion and training, but through embrace and communal bonding. Most people avoid commitment like the plague, but no one will turn down a cheap meal that someone else cooks and a chance to relax with friends.

I have nothing against practicing Judaism in the home. But the social phenomenon of disintegrating families is far beyond our capacity to fix by ourselves. We can support efforts that promote home-based "family values," such as the celebrated V-chip; but in an era of dwindling resources, the Jewish establishment has a choice: rebuild the family-unit or renew Judaism. My vote is to pour our energy into building a communal life so vibrant that what the family does at home will hardly matter. We've got to serve Judaism up to them on a platter, so that in the end, parents and children will look forward so much to decorating the synagogue's sukkah with their friends and eating in it, to spending each Friday night and Shabbat morning with their new extended family, that they won't even realize how much time they are pouring in to being Jewish - and being together.

Paradoxically, by building up communal life, we'll bring families together, away from their homes, perhaps, but under our watchful eyes. The more we eat together (and as you know, we now have a communal Shabbat lunch at least once a month) the more we become an extended family, and communities that become extended families love to travel together too. Shabbat retreats and Israel experiences become natural extensions of Zeydeh's living room.

By the time the children go away to college, our goal should be that they pine for their extended families almost as much as their real ones. We want to build up a tribal loyalty that goes beyond reason, a closeness that cannot be explained in words; so that when a Jew for Jesus approaches there will be no chasm of loneliness to fill, so that gathering with friends at Hillel on Shabbat will be as natural as the Brady Bunch going home for a snack.

I would love a family educator on our staff; but in the end that won't help us to create the feeling of wholeness that can enfold people in a living, breathing Judaism. What I would love more is additional funds for more lunches, dinners, baby sitters, trips and a bigger and more beautiful sukkah for us all to decorate together. For the "Zeydeh's living room" strategy to work, much more money would have to be poured into synagogue programming than ever before -- by Federations too -- not merely for classroom innovations, but for the nuts and bolts activities of synagogue life, and especially for the cheap meals, so that membership can be affordable to all. The synagogue is still the only place where the most significant Jewish sacred moments can be lived out on a communal scale. It is our best hope. Community priorities must be adjusted to reflect this.

Synagogues also have to change: to become a true living room, formality and pretense must be cast aside, democracy encouraged and responsibility shared. Most of all, each child has to become everybody's child -- and each adult too.

Sooner or later, we'll come to realize what Hillary Clinton has been hinting all along, that it takes a village to raise the next generation of Jews. For us to mobilize the villagers to the task, we've got to understand that the home can no longer be seen as our prime battleground. There is only one place that retains some of the magic of Zeydeh's living room, with small children running in circles, teens chatting in the hallway and the older generations exchanging Torah wisdom and stock tips, and the sweet smell of kugel in the air. And that place is the synagogue.

Help us to become that place. Be more active. Volunteer. Help us with our endowment drive. Strive at least to understand that what we do here will make a profound difference in the lives of thousands of people (or more) for generations to come.

Sunday, February 12, 1995

Superabbi: The Flawed Model

New York Jewish Week: 1995

Item: A seventh grader's soccer coach has scheduled a practice for Rosh Hashanah. She walks up to him and says, "You'd better change this or my rabbi's gonna beat you up." She later relates the story to me, with a proud smile on her face. I pray that the coach is not a black belt.

Item: I am welcomed to a new congregation at a service filled with intense excitement and anticipation. The cantor dedicates a new musical composition in my honor, based on Isaiah, called "The Lord is in Our Midst." I fret that expectations are running a tad high.

Item: A large, influential group of Jews proclaims that their rabbi is the Messiah. The rabbi dies, but some insist that he is still the Messiah and will soon return.

The role of the rabbi has always been complex, but lately it appears to have broken the bounds of all human capability. There have been wonder-working rabbis for centuries, but none until now have been called upon to pull off the greatest miracle of all: to single-handedly fill the gaping spiritual hole in the postmodern, alienated Jewish soul. This is a job for Superabbi.

Like frantic Lois Lanes falling from a burning building, people are reaching out; people without roots, without purpose, all stretching their arms toward Superabbi to heal, to shepherd, to redeem them. Skeptical people, betrayed by the very modernity that promised them salvation, now turn to this lonely man of faith imploring, "Make my life full, before it is too late....

...Only don't expect me to commit to anything.

...Only I don't want my friends to see that I am vulnerable.

...And don't forget, it's because of you that I'm so alienated."

And who is "you?" "You" is what I've come to call the O.B.R., the One Bad Rabbi. All it takes is one, and a Jew can be turned off to Judaism for life. Apparently, most of us have had him, and we all went to the O.B.H.S., the One Bad Hebrew School, where this O.B.R. used to rap knuckles and force kids to sing the Sh'ma while screeching chalk along the blackboard with sadistic pleasure. Whatever this O.B.R. did, and it ranges from giving O.L.S. (One Lousy Sermon) to adultery, what matters is that he fell short of expectations, and therefore so did Judaism. The O.B.R. is the one reason I hear more than any other for individuals having been turned off to organized Jewish life.

If the O.B.R. is so dangerous, it's because he is Superabbi unmasked. If we were to not rely so heavily on Superabbi to save us, we'd be far less susceptible to the inevitable revelation that rabbis are fallible. Judaism is too important, and its future too uncertain, for Jews to place its fate in the hands of a single human being.

Or maybe the O.B.R. is just a convenient excuse for those who long ago left the fold but don't want to blame the other likely culprits: Mommy and Daddy, conformity, greed, fear and self-hatred. Whatever the reason, the O.B.R. has got to go, and Superabbi with it.

Through the ages, Jews have had a knack of creating the perfect model of leadership to match their needs. In ancient Israel, kings and prophet answered the call for military might and social justice. In Babylonian exile and beyond, prophets became more comforting and priests arose to create the rituals that would bring the people back into God's favor.

Then, in the wake of the Second Temple's destruction, the rabbinic model of scholar/arbiter/teacher and part-time miracle worker came to dominate the Jewish world. The source of his power was clearly his ability to reason. In the melting pot of 20th century America, the rabbi was converted from teacher to pastor/shepherd, so he could be just like the Christian clergy next door, but with all the ancient Jewish trappings of the miracle worker intact. When the holy man is a teacher, his holiness endows him with wisdom, but otherwise he remains human; when the holy man is primarily a pastor, however, his mere touch can bring salvation.

That kind of promise arouses superhuman expectations -- and disappointments.

Further, if the rabbi is a shepherd, that makes the rest of us sheep. O.K., so Moses, David and Akiba started out as shepherds, but they didn't have to worry about an intermarriage rate of 52 percent and climbing. If the rabbi is a shepherd, he has to lead the flock up the hillside, pulling, pushing and cajoling. Superabbi is expected to get those sheep to the destination, even if they don't want to go.

I have a better idea. How about the rabbi as a co-traveler, a very well educated member of the flock? I chose this model for myself long ago. I don't push or pull my companions, I share my experiences and learn from theirs; together we strive to reach the thick pasture at the top of the hill.

As I see it, I am a spiritual leader simply because I want to refine my own spirit, using the texts of my tradition for guidance, and, in doing so, possibly to inspire others to do the same. I am no different from my friends on the journey, except that I have some wisdom as a tourguide that I share where appropriate.

I believe that the rabbi is neither holier than others nor less human. The extent to which the rabbi can share his humanness, in fact, is the extent to which he can touch the lives of those who choose to travel along. To be the "perfect rabbi," therefore, is not to avoid mistakes, but to make them and then grow from them.

It is time to reaffirm the original intent of the rabbinic model as teacher and spiritual guide, in order to rescue our communities from the ravages of unmet expectations. If Superabbi is allowed to survive, we're setting ourselves up for a fall. In the end, there will be only burnt out rabbis and dissatisfied congregants, lots of O.B.R.s and very few Jews.