Monday, March 31, 2008

Two Jews, One Opinion

The Stamford Advocate 04/03/2002

A story is told of a Jewish congregation where half the people stood up for that seminal prayer known as the Shema, while the other half sat. The two sides bickered endlessly about what was the proper practice, until the rabbi finally appointed a committee to investigate the matter. The committee went to a nearby nursing home to interview a 98-year-old resident, the oldest surviving member of the congregation. Each side made its claim to liturgical correctness, but in each case the old man said "No, that's not the original tradition." Then the rabbi lost patience and exclaimed, "I don't care what the original tradition was. Do you know what goes on in services every week? The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting and the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing."

"That was the tradition," the old man said.

In the wake of the Passover massacre and other acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians, it is time for Jews around the world to express an unprecedented degree of unity. Jews have long taken pride in their cultural proclivity for argumentation. Since Talmudic times, it seems, the standard quip has been, "Two Jews, three opinions." But the current crisis requires a falling-into-line that will seem to many dangerous and unnatural.

Awkwardly, with not a little trepidation but with an even greater fear of the alternative, I raise the new banner: Two Jews, One Opinion.

I say this as long-time dove and critic of Ariel Sharon. I cheered the Handshake on the South Lawn and bristled at the folly that was the War in Lebanon. I've labored effortlessly for equality for Israeli Arabs and I cried when Yasser Arafat paid a condolence call to Leah Rabin. But now I see the need to set aside parochial concerns and the dreams of yesteryear. I am ready to throw unquestioning support to Israel's unity government and await my marching orders.

I am not proposing that all Jews become mindless automata. Fat chance of that happening anyway. Jews are innately too wary of absolutism to place unlimited trust in human beings. Even the ultra-Orthodox do not follow their sages as blindly as one might think. Just before Passover, a story was circulating in Israel among religious Israelis that in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of B'nai Brak, at the home of a revered rabbi, a toilet seat broke. When the rabbi's wife was seen at the local hardware store purchasing a new seat, large numbers of his disciples assumed that their mentor was promoting a new, stricter way of removing all traces of leaven from the home. Instantly, toilet seat sales boomed in B'nai Brak.

Whether this actually happened is secondary to the idea that religious Israelis were joking about it. For while traditional Judaism does advocate unyielding obedience to the Torah, it never promotes blind submission to the will of another human being. For Jews, the mind is an impossible thing to waste.

In fact, Judaism and Jews are at a severe disadvantage in this war. A faith that espouses reason and reveres the sanctity of life must confront a cult of suicide that glorifies martyrdom. A tradition that encourages conscientious objectors to flee the battlefield must deal with those who are bringing the battlefield to every cafe in Tel Aviv and pizzeria in Jerusalem. A people that has spent decades ripping apart its own leaders, most especially the one currently occupying the Prime Minister's office, must face a nation that has blindly followed its larger-than-life patriarch into this most foolish cataclysm.

I am not a tribal Jew. I am a Jew with a universal vision of peace, with a desire to share with the world the highest values of my faith. I long to have my passport stamped in a neighborly Palestinian state and to sip Turkish coffee with Arab friends in Jericho and Ramallah. But right now, I recognize that Judaism's message will be rendered irrelevant if I am incapable of first responding to the blood of my brother screaming from the earth. For this is what Jewish tradition would call an Obligatory War, a war of survival, the one exception to the rule that encourages conscientious objectors. For the Jew right now, there is no alternative but to become completely engaged on behalf of Israel.

In the book of Numbers, two and a half of the twelve tribes were given the right to settle outside the land of Israel, under the condition that they extend complete support to the fledging nation. I am from among that privileged group, living in prosperity far from the carnage. But last week as my family in Connecticut comfortably prepared to reenact the departure from Egypt, innocent Jewish blood was being spattered all over the collapsing door posts of a Netanya hotel. God may have passed over that atrocity, but I will not. Neither will I allow the Jewish people again to become the world's paschal lamb. I am now a foot soldier in this needless war that Arafat has wrought, and I will voluntarily exercise my God-given right to shut up. There is a time to argue and debate and a time to simply do what needs to be done.

And so, Mr. Sharon, tell me what I must do.

The Problem With Pedestal Rabbis

The Jewish Week, 9/00

We ve been hearing a lot about rabbis lately, and most of it not good. Allegations of abuse of rabbinic power and betrayal of trust are hardly new, here or in Israel. In fact, many Israelis, weaned on the galling defiance of Aryeh Deri and the unmitigated chutzpah of Ovadia Yosef, are having a hard time comprehending how an overtly religious person like Joseph Lieberman can be both observant and uncorrupted.

But it s not just over there. Now Publishers Weekly reports that HarperCollins has paid author and former PBS religion reporter Arthur Magida "a significant six figures" for a book based on a trial that won t even be happening until next spring. Why? Because the defendant, Fred Neulander, is believed to be the first rabbi ever to be charged with murder, according to the Publishers Weekly report. Neulander is accused of murdering his wife in suburban Philadelphia. Magida states that the book will pose the question, "What happens when we deify men and women in the pulpit and are betrayed?"

What happens, evidently, is a boffo book advance, with film rights to follow.

Adding insult to injury, a new study of American Jewry authored by Bethamie Horowitz shows that only 5 percent of American Jews see their rabbis as a positive influence in their lives, while 10 percent say rabbis have negatively influenced them.

The remainder of those surveyed didn t mention rabbis as an influence at all, positive or negative. For rabbis, that it is a striking indictment. It means we are 85 percent irrelevant. That statistic screams out for some major rethinking of the rabbi s place in modern Jewish life.

Personally, if my work is to be irrelevant to 85 percent of American Jewry, there is no reason for me to be missing my kids school plays and Little League games. If I am to be an invisible rabbi, I might as well be a good father.

The very week the Horowitz survey was released, I received three calls from people new to my area wishing to find out about my congregation. Each caller complained about how bad experiences with a rabbi turned him or her off to synagogue life umpteen years ago. I m used to hearing that. But what stunned me most was the depth of their gratitude for my merely returning their call.

Have people come to expect so little of their rabbis that they are actually shocked when one displays simple human decency and warmth? Or is it that we still expect too much? Have we set up our leaders for a fall by placing them on pedestals, allowing them to tower so high above being simply human that when the fall occurs, as is inevitable, it is often devastating? Speaking as a rabbi, there is a clear danger in our being so eager to place rabbis on pedestels: we rabbis begin to believe all our press clippings and forget the reasons we got into the rabbinate in the first place. And when we fail, our followers often blindly defend us because they still need to revere us, and we begin to believe that an admission of fallibility will compromise our ability to lead.

It's time to smash the pedestal rabbinate like so many of Terach s idols. Whereas human rabbis make mistakes, take responsibility for them, and move on, pedestal rabbis make mistakes, deny them, hope that others will not notice, and inevitably succumb to them. Pedestal rabbis are the ones most likely to become 85 percent irrelevant in the end because relevance requires relationship, and human beings relate best to other human beings. Only to the degree that I can be human can I lead others on the human quest.

We rabbis are seeking ways to humanize the role without compromising the respect due the position. A few weeks ago I ran an informal survey of colleagues on my on-line rabbinic chat group and found that most prefer to be called "rabbi" by congregants rather than by their first names. I tend to agree. If our important work is to be taken seriously, then let s not infantilize it. Even Mister Rogers gets to be called by his last name. Imagine if the Baal Shem Tov had been called "Rabbi Izzy." Would his disciples of have taken him seriously?

Actually, yes, because it was the power of his message that made the Baal Shem Tov great, not his name (which means, ironically, "Master of the good name."). And for all those rabbis of the Talmud, like Akiba, who were revered by their first names, and all those medieval rabbis with the cool nicknames, like the Rambam and the Ran, these pet names were indicators of the great respect and affection earned through close relationships rather than pedestal-sitting.

It's clear that if we are to navigate our way through this crisis in confidence and re-establish the rightful place of the rabbi in Jewish life, we have to both safeguard the integrity of the role and reaffirm the frailty of the human being who fills it. And that begins when the rabbi steps down from pulpit of the soul and laughs, cries, errs and does teshuvah together with the rest of us. In the end, it doesn t really matter how the rabbi is addressed. What matters is only that the rabbi is addressed, one soul to another, two flawed human beings in dialogue.

The Peter Panning of America (New York Times)

New York Times -- 1988 

 Perhaps THE defining characteristic of the baby boomer is his inexhaustible attachment to his own childhood. Our need to return seems insatiable. Adults rush home from their jobs and flock to films like "Back to the Future" and "Big," where little boys court their mothers and the aging process is magically reversed. 

 Just recently I have rediscovered another genre of film that has added a new dimension to my own retrospections: the home movie. Home movies of the '50s and '60s, left in dusty basements for many years, are now gaining a technological resuscitation through the magic of the V.C.R. I excavated mine, transferred them to videotape, turned on the television, and images that would take a psychiatrist years to draw out of dim memory were suddenly flashing before me like today's news: "Hammerman born; film at 11." 

 I see a baby being carried from the obstetrics ward, apparently asleep. How small and frail he looks, how barely alive. Minutes pass before I realize that the infant was - is - me. George Santayana wrote, "The fact of having been born is a bad augury for immortality," and now I see why, for I am gazing through the looking glass at a time when my existence was a novelty to my parents and the world. 

 The next instant reveals my father tossing burgers at the grill; he smiles, unaware that a heart attack will cut short his life at age 60. I view this bucolic family scene as would Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," yearning to return to the fray and rewrite the script. "Don't eat that, Dad! Stay away from the cholesterol! Talk to me! Let's toss the ball. Let's make the most of what time we have left." I wish to freeze-frame the moment forever, but that is beyond even the capacities of my V.C.R. 

The next moment I see my mother - no, my grandmother - also now dead, and she holds me up to the camera. An older version of me stands alongside. Having learned how to decipher the genetic code of this film, I know that the man must be my uncle. As for the baby - me - I squirm uncomfortably in my grandmother's arms. Funny, in all the photo albums I'm smiling. Movies are far more subtle, more frightening, than any stills. 

My mother appears, as young then as my wife is now. She speaks to the baby. I although I hear none of the dialogue in these silent flicks, it is clear that in her mind I am only a child. Could any legitimate baby boomer not be left wondering how much that relationship has changed? 

 I see the sacred places of my youth, places to which I thought I'd never return: the snowman on my front lawn, the piano in the living room, the swing set in my backyard. The resurrected people, relatives and friends, stare into the camera. And I, the captivated viewer, newly mindful of how precious and fleeting life is, wonder if that is what they are trying to tell me. 

 No wonder my contemporaries and I obsess about our wonder years, the first generation possessing the power to act on that obsession. We are inexhaustibly attached to childhood precisely because we've never had to leave it. We can go home again, thanks to the unwitting collaboration of amateur and professional film makers. 

In the "Back to the Future" series, Steven Spielberg created the town in which we all could have lived; in "Big," Tom Hanks masterfully recreated the child we all could have been. And our trusty home movie fills in all the gaps. We can thrill at our own first step, laugh at our messier feedings and stare in wonder at our birth -- as our own children watch alongside. 

 The home movie and Hollywood film share one inherent weakness: the reel always runs out. Just when the film has resurrected a father's living glance, filling for an instant an aching vacuum in a grown-up child's soul, the scene shifts cruelly to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland, and we must fast-forward past twenty minutes of Mickey Mouse, only to discover in our fright that Mickey Mouse is where it ends. The screen goes blank, the child-that-was fades to black, and we are instantly propelled back to adulthood again. 

That is, until the next showing.

The Parent's Blessing

The Jewish Week 03/24/2006

This morning my son Dan came to breakfast with a subtle rasp in his otherwise crisp, cherubic voice. Normally that would not be a big deal, but with his bar mitzvah just weeks away, every minuscule vocal deviation becomes a major concern.

The human body virtually reinvents itself every day, replacing billions of dead cells, especially on the skin. But a voice change, like the bar mitzvah itself, is among those landmark events that register most profoundly on the parental Richter scale. These past few months, similar no-turning-back events have been occurring in my household with alarming frequency. Dan got braces a couple of months ago, I got stronger glasses and, not long after that, I gave my other son, Ethan, nearly 15, his first shave.

I’ve always believed in hands-on parenting – 13 years ago, I performed Dan’s brit – and as I navigated my Norelco tripleheader down Ethan’s chin and across his stretched neck, gingerly sidestepping the Adam’s apple and juking the jugular, I noticed some real similarities between the two cuttings. Sometimes the blade is necessary but no parent wants to apply a blade to any child, anywhere, at any time. Aside from not wanting to cause pain, I shuddered at being a participant in such a miraculous molting, peeling away at the layers of the boy only to reveal the man. The blade only tickled Ethan – I was the one feeling diced.

I shaved him knowing that the alternative would be to let him do it himself, something I had tried on my own teen face nearly a lifetime ago, leaving it looking like the West Side highway after a late winter thaw, littered with scrapes and potholes. So I sheared him, and since then have done it twice more, awed each time not only at my holding over him the power of life and death, but that with each stroke I was midwifing his rebirth into adulthood – and my own into obsolescence.

It is petrifying to be a parent, so much so, in fact, that since the Middle Ages Jewish parents of a bar mitzvah have recited the oddest of blessings. It reads: “Praised is God, who has relieved me of guilt for whatever becomes of this child.” Historians trace this Baruch Shep’tarani blessing back to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, brothers whose post-adolescent lives took dramatically different tracks. Although Rebecca and Isaac were hardly exemplary parents, the blessing validates their unavoidable helplessness in opposing Esau’s wayward ways. In instituting this prayer, the rabbis were implying that there comes a point where parents simply have to let go.

I’m having a lot of trouble doing that.

I live with the dread every day, aware that each letting-go is a dress rehearsal for the ultimate Letting-Go. I know that when I die, my children’s first act will be to consummate that separation with the ritual cutting of clothing, every bit as painful as the brit milah and shaved chin, and every bit as necessary for further growth.

Everything happening now is leading up to our being left in the dust. First they crawl, then walk, then ride a bike, then drive a car. The speed increases with each new step, all the while nature is taking its entropic toll on the parent huffing and puffing behind, falling away like the spent first stage of a Saturn 5. With each passing milestone, my ability decreases to ensure their survival – and my own.

I remember exactly when Ethan’s math homework became too tough for me and my embarrassment at discovering that what used to be considered R-rated is now being packaged as PG. “Meet the Fockers” was an education for all of us. But still I hold on for as long as I can, for as long as they will let me.

As a rabbi who has served the same community for nearly a generation, I feel like I’ve said “Baruch Shep’tarani” hundreds of times, as week after week “my” children have paraded across the pulpit and out into the world, slipping beyond my grasp into adulthood. But there is no “Baruch Shep’tarani” for clergy, however, or for God. Only parents can love children enough to let them go.

Ethan may unwittingly have been speaking for all my other students when, at his bar mitzvah two years ago, he got up before a packed congregation and said, “I’d like to thank the rabbi ... he’s been like a father to me.” I may have shaved only him, but as the kids come and go, I feel like I’ve been shearing the entire flock. I cut – they run.

This next letting-go will be the toughest. Just after Passover, I will stand at the Torah and watch Dan ascend, my baby in his fresh-cut suit, looking and sounding like a burgeoning man, with the deepening voice, the braces and the first hint of adolescent blemish on his smooth, dimpled face, I’ll whisper a measured “Baruch Shep’tarani,” clear my throat and, in a raspy, broken undertone, let him know how proud I am.

And another layer of my adult skin will slide away. Only part of me will survive this ordeal – the part that has learned how to hug with one arm and let go with the other.

Surfing for God

A Review of Give Me That On-line Religion"
(This article originally appeared on

"Give Me That On-line Religion" by Brenda E. Brasher. Jossey Bass. 208pp. $24.95
If there is one commonly accepted truth about the emerging cyber-culture, it is that the only constant is change. Only a couple of years ago, when I was in the midst of writing my own book about spirituality and the Internet, people were just beginning to realize that cyberspace connected us to one another in ways analogous to offline religious experiences.

Now that fact is accepted as a given, what with the proliferation of major religious Web sites like Beliefnet and the nearly universal access to the Internet that suddenly spans all the generations. When I toured with my book, I was astonished at how many seniors turned out for my lectures, and at how cyber-savvy they had become.

So we've reached a new stage in our exploration of religion in cyberspace, one of redefinition and advocacy. This is the underlying premise of Brenda Basher's most recent contribution to the growing genre of books dealing with online spirituality, entitled, "Give Me That Online Religion." Basher, an assistant professor of religion at Mount Union College in Ohio, draws upon her vast understanding of a variety of world religions and the role of religion in society in exploring the topic from a variety of perspectives.

She makes two main points: 1) that religion is a necessary and valuable contributor to a civil society, or as she calls it, "a rich incomparable meaning resource -- necessary ballast to individual identity," and 2) that religious expression must be fostered, cultivated and protected online.

She looks at how traditional religions, including Judaism, have been enhanced. She notes that previous technological innovations were catalysts for change -- television, for instance, led to the slow ascendancy of image over word, and to religious services designed to look like media events. Now, we are moving toward what she calls an "electronic souk of the soul," where developing forms of hypertext surfing are becoming a religious experience unto themselves.

We are learning to broaden our spiritual horizons. Where television opened the door to seeing carefully staged presentations of other cultures, "cyberspace puts us in direct one-on-one contact with our neighbors around the world." Millions of people are only a mouse click away, she adds, "and they are all our neighbors." This poses some moral dilemmas (such as whether cyber sex constitutes adultery) that Basher explores in detail.

She broadens the definition to include some cultural phenomena that we might not automatically associate with "old time religion," including virtual shrines to the cult of celebrity (everything from "Star Trek" celebrations to Princess Diana memorials). Basher also explores modern apocalyptic movements like Heaven's Gate, emphasizing again that, despite the dangers, cyberspace must continue to be a place preserved for people to "climb and roam."

This book reads best as a series of disconnected reflections rather than a sustained, integrated argument. But that in itself is a product of our new, hyperlinked zeitgeist, where writing, like praying and believing, is taking on the spontaneous, word-association flavor of Web surfing. The book will certainly find its place in this still tiny genre, a first-generation study at how we are religious online and how, all expectations to the contrary, traditions of the past are not being subsumed by the eternal present of cyber-culture. As we become more and more computer-like in our thought processes and more technologically sophisticated, we are most certainly not leaving religion behind. God is coming along for the ride.

Spirituality and Religion


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.

S.O.S.: Saving Our Synagogues

Review essay for, 2003

The concept of synagogue renewal has been around for as long as there have been synagogues. Liturgical reform might well have been invented by Abraham, who decided that his father's idols didn't fit in with his generation's cutting-edge modes of spirituality, so he applied his own "cutting edge" to the idols themselves. The Torah is replete with examples of places of worship being knocked over and altars destroyed. Relatively speaking, today's efforts at synagogue renewal are rather mild.

The contemporary synagogue-renewal effort can easily be traced back to the beginnings of the Havurah movement of the late 1960's. Within a few years, that old/new model of communal intimacy in worship and study infiltrated the large amorphous edifices of post-war suburbia, thanks to visionary rabbis like Harold Schulweis and the enormous popularity of the Jewish Catalog series. It was in the third volume of the Catalog (JPS, 1980) that Lawrence Kushner, Arnold Jacob Wolf and Everett Gendler addressed the issue most directly: "The synagogue is the only institution claiming as its reason for existence the perpetuation of religious Judaism in America. For all but a very few Jews, the synagogue is the sole vehicle for religious life and response...And despite this, few would disagree that most synagogues are irrelevant, boring and probably secular."

In fact, back then, few might have disagreed with that statement, but far fewer would have admitted it openly. That was because a generation of American Jews was not completely lost yet. Twenty years ago, those afflicted with boredom and irrelevance had not yet defected in droves into the arms of then many alternative gods awaiting them and their new-found freedom. Synagogues were boring, but we had no choice but to eat our peas and sit in muffled acquiescence. Few enjoyed the non-participatory music and dusty irrelevant sermons given from distant, stratospheric pulpits, not to mention the rectangular gridiron seating configuration, but there was no compulsion to change things.

No longer. Now we in synagogue life fully understand that our children have choices and that we must compete for their attention. We must provide a nurturing and energizing oasis for their journeys. When I was in rabbinical school twenty years ago, we were told that services didn't need to compete with the cultural offerings at Lincoln Center and Broadway, because they couldn't possibly measure up to those levels of entertainment and pathos. Now, belatedly, we are realizing that what Jewish prayer has to offer can be just as moving, revitalizing and spiritually gratifying as anything else out there. Bold new models have emerged that have proven that we can compete with anyone, and actually attract younger people to venture through the doors.

Coming to shul can be "cool" again.

The Jewish world has come to understand that synagogues are still the best possible place for renewal to occur, so even staunch secularists have come to the rescue. Federations are looking to nurture synagogue life--a once-unthinkable notion. And private foundation dollars are pouring into this effort, creating new think-tank organizations like STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal) and Synagogue 2000.

One of the co-founders of Synagogue 2000 (who might now wish to rename) is Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College. Hoffman's recent writings on liturgy and renewal are becoming required reading for clergy, and they have inspired other books on the subject. Three books of note are Hoffman's own The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only, Sidney Schwarz's Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of American Jews Can Transform the Synagogue, (for which Hoffman contributed a glowing endorsement), and Isa Aron's Becoming a Congregation of Learners, which is part of the Synagogue 2000 "Revitalizing Synagogue Life" series and contains a forward by Hoffman. Collectively, these three fine books can help us to understand what are the primary aims of contemporary synagogue reform and how they might differ from those that came before.

One thing is clear. Boredom will no longer be tolerated. Mediocrity is unacceptable, and those synagogues that refuse to ride the new wave will ultimately sink under the weight of their excessive ballast. And in order to overcome the boredom, change tends to be more revolutionary than evolutionary. Whereas the Havurah movement toyed with neo-hasidism but basically hung close to tradition and emphasized community and fellowship most of all, the moderns are far more eclectic and open to spiritual experimentation. B'nai Jeshrun in New York, for example, is one of the four model congregations profiled in Schwarz' book. This is the model "Conservative" congregation, although neither it, nor the models selected from the other movements, remotely resembles what the mainstream of their movements have been doing. B.J.'s selection of music has gone far beyond the basic Eastern European niggunim tunes of its Havurah forbears, to feature an eclectic blend of American, Sephardic and Israeli contemporary melodies.

We find in these books conflicting prescriptions for effective leadership. While the trend is clearly toward democratization (i.e. the empowerment of the congregant and the less-central role of the rabbi--with the role of the cantor in even greater danger), the model institutions presented by Schwarz all have rabbis who have achieved nearly iconic status. Somehow, it seems, we have to find the perfect blend of charisma and passivity among religious leaders, allowing congregations the chance to grow organically without coercion from above. The "shepherd" model of a pastor tending his passion-less mindless flock appears, thankfully and most certainly, to be dead. Dynamic congregations have learned not to depend on the rabbi's healing powers alone, but to take on the responsibility, and the joy, of caring for one another and creating community. The rabbi as visionary is very much alive, with the caveat that the congregation has to be ready to share and develop the vision as a partner.

Hoffman's Not for Clergy book is in fact must reading for clergy, for he exposes clearly some of the subtleties that make the worship experience dysfunctional, and how we can change them. When people say they are unable to pray, or that they don't need to pray, Hoffman tells us, "they are unknowingly scapegoating themselves, mistakenly blaming themselves for a system failure." He goes on to discuss matters ranging from choice of music to the selection and arrangement of sacred space, which have been central to the mission of Synagogue 2000.

Aron looks away from the sanctuary service as a key to revitalizing the synagogue, but applies many of the same goals of massive transformation and shared vision. Most recognize that the post-War Hebrew School model, as practiced for two generations, has essentially failed. Jewish education, like worship, like Judaism itself, no longer can be compartmentalized. When education isn't just confined to the Hebrew School, but makes its way into the boardroom, sanctuary and home, it can imbue the congregation's visioning process with Jewish authenticity as well as spirituality. Aron gives us a number of success stories. Utilizing personal testimonies and citing congregations of excellence, she, like Schwarz, provides needed motivation for other clergy and lay leadership.

After reading the Schwarz book, I bought copies for my entire board and arranged for a field trip to one of the congregations described, knowing that it wasn't enough for me to want change, they needed to want it too. I now wonder if the Aron book might have been of greater use. While less dramatic in presentation, she offers a cogent, step-by-step approach, using her skills as an educator to lead congregations on the path toward transformation. Schwarz is less able to get the average congregation from "here" to "there"--he just gives us a glowing sense of where "there" is. That in itself is valuable, but unless your congregation has a hyper-dynamic rabbi (preferably a venerated founding rabbi) whose vision is automatically accepted by a rousing consensus of lay leaders eager for experimentation, you will have to travel far even to begin the process of transformation described here.

Schwarz admits that the utopias he describes are diametrically opposed to the norm: "Unfortunately," he writes, "the corporate organizational structure of most synagogues is inhospitable, if not antagonistic, to the kind of singular rabbinical leadership that characterizes our four featured synagogues...The rabbi may have some success in changing the tone of religious services and will have relative freedom to speak and teach as they wish, but changing the organizational culture is next to impossible."

I'm not sure I agree that it is next to impossible. I've managed to achieve it in my own congregation, to some degree, but only over the course of many years. Changing the culture is in fact the easy part. The hard part is to get the congregation to want to change. That means chopping off the head of Terach's idol--and Terach, after all, is our father. Terach is the 90-year old macher who sits in the second row every week, or the past-president and department-store owner who wants nothing to change so that he won't be tempted to leave golf course each Saturday, or the Holocaust survivor who has had enough turmoil in his life who does want anymore change.

However, when people can read of success stories such as these via Schwarz, and then through Hoffman (with liturgy) and Aron (with education), they find a road map toward achieving similar success. When the synagogue comes alive, I've found that even Terach wants to come along for the ride to the Promised Land.

Books Discussed in Night Reading

The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only by Lawrence Hoffman. Skylight Paths. $17.95
Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of American Jews Can Transform the Synagogue by Sidney Schwarz. Jossey-Bass. $24.00
Becoming a Congregation of Learners by Isa Aron. Jewish Lights. $19.95

Pokemon's "Swastika" and the Right to Cultural Privacy

Originally Appeared in The Stamford Advocate, 12/19/99

On Veterans Day last month, the day after the Pokemon Movie opened, nine-year-old Paul Springer and his younger sister Ilana came to my office, seeking my advice. They brought with them a Pokemon trading card featuring two of the series’ 150 characters, Golbat and Ditto, alongside what looked like a swastika. They wanted their rabbi’s opinion as to whether engaging in further Pokemon activities was, well, Kosher.

Much was riding on my recommendation. Paul had already given away most of his Pokemon cards and was quite upset, as was his grandfather, a refugee from Poland who had lost many of his family in the Holocaust. As a father, I couldn’t help but consider that my own two children were looking forward to seeing the movie that day. As a rabbi, I couldn’t help but think of how our synagogue’s parking lot had been desecrated with swastikas only two months before. And Buford Furrow’s attack on Jewish children near Los Angeles was also fresh in our minds.

But as a lifelong student of religions and advocate of cultural diversity, I knew something else -- that it wasn’t really a swastika. I pulled a book from the shelf and held up the Pokemon card to a photo of Hitler, with arm extended in his infamous salute and an "authentic" Nazi swastika on his sleeve. As one Hebrew School student later remarked, "the tentacles face the other way." It wasn’t a swastika at all next to the Golbat and Ditto. It was a "manji," a Japanese sign of hope, a symbol whose meaning evokes for the Japanese exactly the opposite of what a swastika connotes to those of us in the West. Doing some quick research on the Internet, I was intrigued by the claim that the Nazis deliberately reversed this emblem, transforming an ancient Asian symbol of life into one of death. I managed to convince Paul and Ilana and myself that a strong letter to Nintendo might be in order, but that it was OK to see the movie.

A few weeks later, Nintendo pulled the card, claiming that it was never intended for distribution in the West and that "what’s appropriate for one culture may not be for another." That claim at first made me bristle at the company’s insensitivity to the Pauls and Ilanas of this world. But then I wondered about the fairness of it all, whether we in the West have a right to bulldoze ancient cultures whose symbols don’t quite suit our sensibilities. Or have we simply reached the point where East has met West, and never the twain shall part? In our new border-less civilization, is there still room for cultural privacy? Or must everything fit neatly into a single, bland package?

In this global village, the wall of separation between church and state still stands tall, but the one separating church from mosque and synagogue is dropping fast. Through the Internet, a Jew whose name isn’t Kissinger can now "visit" Saudi Arabian holy places, and I do, often, then occasionally extending my multicultural hajj to Chartres, the Vatican, or to one of my favorites, the gorgeous Meenakshi Hindu temple in Madurai, Southern India. Usually, I end up at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (called the Kotel in Hebrew), where, through a live camera feed called Kotel Kam, this Conservative male rabbi can zoom his way smack into the women’s section, unbeknownst to the Ultra-Orthodox overseers of this Jewish holy site. I love these on-line expeditions, but wonder if through my temerity I am crossing too many cultural boundaries, compromising the uniqueness of other faiths and denominations, and possibly betraying my own.

As we become more crowded on this shrinking Earth, there still must be a place to respect the belief-space of the other.

If any symbol deserves to be internationally taboo, it is surely the swastika. Nintendo should have been able to see the problem that would arise. But I fear for a world where the symbol police will be out in force, cruising the Web for non-conformity to standards that no one really sets.

Maybe it is time to set some, so that cultural privacy will be respected, and so that those few symbols sullied by universal evil will gain the international censure they deserve. Perhaps our world is small enough now that Buddhists might consider voluntarily giving up or modifying the manji, understanding that they are paying an unfair but necessary price for the crimes of leaders half a world away. Other faiths must also be willing to follow suit. The Catholic Church has certainly done its part, reversing centuries-old positions regarding Jews and Judaism, tenets of faith that had fed anti-Semitism for nearly two millennia. Adherents of all faiths are coming to understand that no one creed possesses a monopoly on truth, and that we all have much to learn from the Other.

Given this increase in dialogue and understanding, new rules of interfaith engagement might prevail. That means not engaging in missionary activity, especially of a deceptive nature. "Jews for Jesus" and other so-called Messianic Jews routinely dupe people with their Christological interpretations of Jewish symbols and rituals like the Passover Seder. This activity demonstrates no respect for the cultural integrity of another faith.

For Jews, the Millennium presents a particular dilemma, since it is based on a Christian calendar calculations. By the Jewish date book, we are in the year 5760, and Y2K is based on the supposed birth date of a popular Jew whom Jews don’t recognize as the Messiah. Yet rather than scorn at the world on Dec. 31, Jews would do better to join others in serious reflection, made even more serious by the fact that New Years Eve and Day happen to coincide with the Sabbath.

So in the end, we all have something new to learn from the manji: for us in the West, to see the joy the serenity it brings to the Buddhist, and to accept it; for our Eastern neighbors, to see the grimace of pain on the face of Paul’s grandfather, and to change it.

Minyan Mastery

So you’ve decided to come to our morning minyan, on weekdays at 7:30 or Sundays at 9. First of all, THANK YOU! You are performing one of the most important “mitzvot” in all of Judaism – you are ‘BEING THERE.’ They say that so much of life is just showing up? Well, in fact, showing up is what it’s all about. The service is fast – about a half hour on most days, 40 minutes on Monday and Thursday, when we read Torah. It’s a great time to collect your thoughts and focus on the day ahead – plus you will almost certainly be giving someone needed comfort and companionship at a most difficult time, someone you might not even know.

If you are feeling a bit intimidated about coming the most important thing to remember is this:

There is no need to be intimidated. Your mere presence is your present!

You don't have to do anything except be there and stand up and sit down as directed, and for that everyone will be grateful! Those who wish to participate further can follow along in the prayer book in Hebrew or in English, open the Ark or have an aliyah, just like on Shabbat morning. But if you prefer, you may remain a passive observer until such time, if any, as you desire to become more involved.

First, some terminology: For an interesting explanation of the word "daven" - read here. Bracha? read here.

But if you are interested in learning more, and becoming a real Minyan master, read here!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Forbidden Oreo® (New York Times Magazaine)

The New York Times Magazine (1998)

PDF of original article

The news came racing across the Internet with apocalyptic urgency. My rabbinical chat group was abuzz with incredible tidings. Could it finally be true? No, we don't have a Jewish president yet, but something almost equally astounding has transpired, a telltale sign that Jews have finally made it. After eighty-five years in the gentile larder, Oreos have gone Kosher.

With the possible exception of Santa Claus and the Big Mac, the self-proclaimed "King of Cookies" has long been the most infamous forbidden fruit from which observant Jewish children have kept their distance. As our mouths watered at the mere mention of this unsupervised delicacy, we assuaged our deprived taste buds with inferior sawdust-textured hybrids and swallowed our yearning for Oreo mix-ins at the ice cream parlor. Some kids dreamed of catching a Mickey Mantle foul pop; I fantasized about unscrewing an Oreo and licking the middle.

I called Nabisco to confirm the good news, and it got even better. Not only are Oreos now Kosher, but so are Ritz Bits, Honeymaid Grahams and many other products. In truth, these edibles could have passed muster a decade ago, when an increasingly health-conscious Nabisco began replacing animal fat with vegetable shortening in its products.

I should be thrilled at this news. If the cookie-moguls are finding it cost-effective to answer to a Higher authority, that's because more people are opting to bring God into the kitchen. And it's not just Jews. Kosher food is increasingly popular among Moslems (who have similar dietary laws), vegetarians, and undoubtedly many who wonder how U.S. government inspectors could have let so many tainted burgers make it to the freezers of Burger King last summer.

Domestic sales of products targeted to the Kosher consumer now exceed $3 billion annually, having achieved double-digit increases for each of the past five years. The Orthodox Union alone claims 250,000 products under its supervision. Kosher companies are being gobbled up as fast as their food. The corporation that owns Armour Bacon, Conagra, now also owns Hebrew National; Shofar salamis are peddled by Sara Lee, and Manischewitz is owned by Kohlberg and Co., whose president came from, of all places, RJR Nabisco.

Eating these days is an act of faith -- and fear. We can't understand most of what s on the label, but when we see a Kosher symbol, many naively assume that a pious old religious guy personally inspects and gives God's blessing to each item. While that myth is overblown and Kosher products might not always be healthier, Jewish dietary laws promote the type of self control that often leads to healthier living. They are based on a value system that sanctifies life, limits the pain of animals and views the body as a temple; all of which places these ancient principles in confluence with the current zeitgeist and has made the Kosher symbol into this generation's Good Housekeeping seal.

But now that Kosher is "in" and Oreos are O.K., I'm not sure I want them to be. Not that I want my children to suffer, but I know that in some perverse manner my Oreo envy kept me safely at the outer edges of middle America, shielding me from total absorption into the vanilla masses.

More than anything else, the Jewish contribution to American culture has been through communicating the experience of marginality, of having survived Otherness. Oreo denial was, for me, a direct extension of Egyptian slavery -- it made me uncomfortable enough to feel different and different enough to feel proud.

Even those Jews who always ate Oreos will now lose out. They have one less whopper of a sin to notch to their defiant belts ("Take that, Rabbi Marcus! And furthermore, we served 'em with shrimp at Joey's Bar Mitzvah!"). The news leaves us utterly confused, much as Adam and Eve would have felt had God suddenly appeared to them years later, saying, "You know that fruit, the one that caused all the trouble? Well, it's O.K. now. Here, unscrew it. Take a lick." Which taboo will be the next to fall? Bestiality? Murder? The Hostess Twinkie?

I can recall my first Twinkie: I was around eight; she was blonde, soft and spongy, sweet and sensational -- it just felt right. Mamie, my matronly Irish baby-sitter, knew little of the tribal taboos imposed on my home. Sure, she kept her ham sandwiches to herself and never fed me milk with meat. But how was she to know that this innocent snack was as verboten as a slab of bacon? It was just a Twinkie, and she offered it to me. So what was I to do? I was hooked. For weeks on end Mamie supplied me with Twinkies. Eventually, both Mamie and the Twinkies disappeared. She never had the chance to get me on to Oreos.

It is almost midnight. I'm sitting at my kitchen table, sampling my first batch of the previously prohibited cookie. Holding it up to the light, I scrutinize this marvelous black medallion with the embossed "OREO" surrounded by a wreath of posies. I feel so normal. So American. I shudder. Has the Jewish condition ever been compatible with normalcy? Can we survive this?

A more formidable dilemma lies before me: to dunk, bite or unscrew? As I hum, "A kid'll eat the middle of an Oreo first...," I begin to twist the top carefully with my left hand, holding the bottom cookie steady with my right.

The top breaks in half.

I eat the broken cookie. It's good, but I crave a Twinkie. The thrill is gone.

The Oreo, enduring symbol of hollowness for African-Americans, reveals the masks Jews wear as well. As noble distinctions continue to crumble and cherished customs gain universal appeal, I am beginning to understand that a faith community cannot live by food taboos alone. True, we are what we eat, but we must be more.

Kosher Oreos®: The Rest of the Story

The Jewish Week, January 1998

The sudden appearance of the kosher Oreo, reported in the Jewish Week a few weeks ago, has by now received ample media attention, including my own observations in the New York Times Magazine. But the significance of the story cannot be overstated. My research has led me to some important conclusions that could not be discussed at length in the Times article. So allow me to fill you in some of what didn't fit amidst "all the news that's fit to print."

1) Kosher is not just trendy, it's becoming downright profitable. In recent years, a number of kosher food companies have been bought out by large corporations, not as an act of tzedakkah, but purely for profit. This makes for strange dietary bedfellows; like Shofar salamis being peddled by Sara Lee, and Hebrew National being owned by the same company that makes Armour bacon. If you don't believe that kosher is profitable, ask the overseers of Nabisco, who just spent big bucks to purify all their factories and change their packaging. The only thing they didn't do is throw out massive supplies of the old packaging, but that in itself was in compliance with the Jewish concept of "Bal Tashchit," which prohibits needless waste. This accounts for the annoying lag between the actual time when Oreos became a supervised kosher item (October at the latest) and the belated appearance of Oreos with the Orthodox Union symbol on the packages at your local grocer.

2) In marketing, perception is everything, and "kosher" has undergone a radical and positive image makeover -- among everyone except Jews. Why is it that kosher products are suddenly receiving rave reviews and double digit sales increases annually, while many Jews still seem to be abandoning our treasured dietary practices? Part of the answer is that non-Jews are coming at it from a very different perspective. They (or their parents) never rejected these laws, so there is none of the guilt or defensiveness often displayed by Jews when confronted with kosher options. Jews also can easily recall a time when Jewish cuisine was equated with soggy meat, bad breath and clogged arteries, a time when and all the good things in life, like lobsters and Oreos, were denied us.

But now vegetarians see kosher as implying creative meat substitutes, and Moslems see a guarantee of no pork, and these two groups are the fastest growing segment of the kosher market. It is estimated that in ten years, each of these groups will account for a larger share of the kosher market than Jews. In addition, pareve is becoming a magic word for those with lactose intolerance. And for the average American, who has seen Burger King close down because of tainted meat and the safety of just about everything edible thrown into doubt, U.S. government inspection has become something of a joke. Desperate for assurance, people are looking for dietary protection from a Higher authority.

While kosher products might not always be healthier, our dietary laws promote the type of self control that often leads to healthier living. They are based on a value system that sanctifies life, limits the pain of animals and views the body as a temple; all of which places these ancient principles in confluence with the current spiritual zeitgeist.

But while people all around us are looking for the kosher symbol, why do so many Jews still scoff at the dietary laws, considering them archaic, burdensome and pointless? And while everyone else equates kosher with quality and good health, why do Jews still equate it with cholesterol levels higher than the stock market?

Maybe it's because we like to be defiant. It's been part of our nature since Abraham challenged God over Sodom. Some Jews flaunt their consumption of "treyf," as a way of avenging an oppressive Jewish childhood. I feel for the poor guy who now won't be able to notch this one whopper of a sin to his defiant belt and say, "Take that, Rabbi Marcus! Not only do I eat Oreos, I LOVE Oreos! And I served 'em with shrimp at Joey's Bar Mitzvah!"

And who can blame us if we're confused by this Oreo revelation? Imagine how Adam and Eve would have felt if God had come to them years after Eden, saying, "You know that fruit, the one that caused all the trouble? Well, it's O.K. now. Here, unscrew it. Take a bite." Suddenly, what many avoided like the plague has become as blessed as mannah from heaven.

But most of all, our ambivalence about kashrut has little to do with confusion or defiance and much to do with our inability to see Judaism in shades of guiltless grey. While there are undeniable boundaries that clearly delineate kosher from non-kosher, in reality, for most of us the lines are much more blurry. There are Jews who eat kosher "in" and others who eat it "out," and others who simply avoid pork and shellfish. Some eat only "glatt," and others eat "glatt treyf" but never have milk with their cheeseburgers. We are all over the map. And all of us feel guilty about our level of kashrut, because each of us, without exception, has compromised from time to time, if only not to embarrass a host or or alienate a relative.

For everyone else, kosher has become synonymous with quality. For us, kosher remains that wagging finger of shame, ever reminding us of our shortcomings.

Rather than being so hung-up about our slip-ups, we should accept inconsistency, marvel at the wisdom of our ancestors, and seek to grow, spiritually as well as physically, with every bite we take. In rabbinic tradition, the pig is unkosher because of its hypocrisy. While it flaunts an outwardly kosher appearance, stretching its split hooves for all to see, it hides its dark digestive secret: it does not chew its cud (kosher mammals must be split hooved-ruminants). Too many Jews flaunt their levels of dietary observance or non-observance, wearing on their sleeves either a condescending strict adherence or an equally abrasive rebelliousness; but internally we all dwell in far more complex territory. We need to admit that and get beyond it.

Let's enjoy the cookie that the world has long enjoyed, just as the world is now learning to appreciate a philosophy of eating that has long sustained us. Let's delight in our de-larded Nabisco factories the way the Maccabees reveled after removing swine from the Temple. This Oreo thing calls for a celebration and a renewed appreciation of kashrut.

Got milchicks?

God's Place: The City

The following address was delivered by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El, Stamford, at a joint service between Temple Beth El and Bethel A.M.E., held at the church on December 19, 1993. The service was the second in a series of cooperative ventures between the two congregations, aimed at strengthening the bonds between the Jewish and African American communities of Stamford.

I am so happy to be here at the invitation of your spiritual leader. As we've gotten to know each other, Reverend Winton Hill and I have come to realize that there is so much more that unites us than divides us. We each run around like crazy and fight to squeeze in time for our families. We each care most of all about the children, our own, and yours too. And we each grieve at what we see happening to our children, when we see them exposed to violence, hunger, neglect and hatred. We want our children to feel a special pride in who they are and where they come from.

To take the legacy of their people and transform it into the greatest love of all, the love of self leading to a love for humanity. We are so fortunate to have Winton Hill our community. He is, in every way, a soulmate and friend.

The Beth El - Bethel relationship was forged by a dream. Several dreams, really. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to be sure, and of generations of Jews and African Americans who have worked together, suffered together and grown together in their efforts to build a more just, more compassionate America for their children.

But there is one more dream that we share, one embedded in our very identity, our name, and our Bible. It was Jacob's dream that occurred in the place he called Beit El, Beth-el, the House of the Lord. And in Jacob's dream, a ladder was set on earth with its top stretching forth unto heaven, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

When Jacob awoke, he understood what he hadn't before, that God's presence could be felt in a place utterly ordinary, seemingly earth-bound, and a simple place, cluster of stones, really, became holy.

Our dream today is nothing less than to make Jacob's Beth-el a living concept in our living city. We stand together, as Stamford's two Beth-els, committed to transforming Stamford into a house of God. We must build a ladder to heaven. Right here. Right now.

Ancient holy cities, Jerusalem, Mecca, Benares, Peking, all were built around sacred spaces, which allowed for a feeling of intersection, where the horizontal plane could meet the vertical. Where people could remove their shoes in the knowledge that this place was God's place. In those days, the city came to symbolize hope, reaffirmation and resolve. In recent times, cities have lost their ability to build those sacred ladders, choosing instead to build secular palaces of concrete and glass, to be centers of commerce rather than compassion, coming to symbolize corruption, confrontation and despair. That is precisely what has happened to New York, where the politics of fear have become the only means of motivating the populace.

But Stamford is not New York. Stamford is smaller. Stamford does still care. Stamford still puts people first, or at least it can. And Stamford has two very different Beth Els who wish to bring the entire city to an understanding of how we can build that ladder to heaven.

We can become a healing city, a place where all citizens feel sustained and nurtured in its midst.

We can become an organic city, not of disparate neighborhoods and conflicting groups, but a collage where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The great cities of the past all felt organic and whole, down to the last detail, the restaurants, the sidewalks, the neighborhoods, the gardens, the walls. In Jerusalem, for instance, there is not a single stone that is not tear-stained, whether it adorn an ancient shrine or a modern cafe, it is all Jerusalem, all reaching up to the heavens. Our city can reach heavenward too, but only if we provide the tears, the laughter, the kindness, and imprint them on every stone and girder.

It all comes together today. Today we are not African American and Jew, we are Stamford. And if we can come together, the rest of the city will have to follow. If they see that we can care for each other, we who are so different, we who still have somewhat differing agendas, but we who do care for each other, if they can see us holding hands, if we can pull this off, the rest of the city will take notice. Like the Maccabees and martyrs of old, we can change the world.

This city can care for its homeless, for its sick, for its downtrodden, for its living and for its dying. And we can help it.

In his book, "A Vision of Britain," Prince Charles says, the "Our towns and cities can be restored to places where people matter once more and where our spirits find tranquillity and inspiration." Today we share that inspiration. We can become an oasis of tranquillity.

New eras have begun in South Africa and the Middle East. Almost simultaneously, the two international arenas that have concerned our peoples the most have miraculously become arenas of reconciliation. Our relationship will no longer be distracted by them. Instead we can focus on building bridges. This is the second joint service our congregations have held this year. In 1994, we hope to follow this up with more dialogue, more involvement, more coming together -- with your help. Please join in our effort. We need it. Our city needs it. We can become a model of caring and coexistence between Jews and African Americans -- sort of like the U Conn basketball team, which has had more Israeli imports than a Kosher supermarket. Let's follow their lead as they rise to the top.

The writer James McPherson noted that there has been of late an unfortunate tendency among Jews toward greater racism and among blacks toward greater antisemitism, and that it can be traced to same thing: each group is trying to join the majority. The rest of the world hates, so we'll hate too. We can't deny these trends, nor can we deny that the temptation exists to hate.

There may be comfort in numbers but we, as two peoples who have seen the results of senseless hatred, we've got to fight it. We've got to love each other, even if that is just one more thing that places us against the tide.
For the sake of our city, we've got to end the hating.

For the sake of the children, we've got to end the hating.

For the sake of God, we've got to end the hating.

Today, right here, right now, we each are adding one rung to Jacob's ladder. And together, we stretch forth to the heavens, as our city becomes a House of God.

Civil War (What has become of civility?)

The Jewish Week, May 1996

What has become of civility?

We see its demise in Washington, where angry ideologues have driven the moderates underground, and on talk shows, where hard-earned reputations are routinely demolished; from Giants Stadium, where catcalls led to ice-balls, to our own offices, schools and homes.

So I decided to launch a counter-attack -- by being extraordinarily nice for a single day.

My inspiration came from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who originated the idea of a day when all Americans would refrain from hurtful speech, and Senators Lieberman and Mack, who last August introduced a resolution designating this May 14 as the first "National Speak No Evil Day." The resolution is still well shy of the 50 co-sponsors needed to propel it out of the Judiciary Committee. Evidently, a number of senators feel this idea is too hokey to fly. I wanted to prove them wrong.

I elected to go cold-turkey on destructive language for 24 hours. These were my ground rules: 1) No cursing or screaming; 2) No negative statements about any third party not present; 3) Utter courtesy in all interactions; and 4) I would not tell anyone about this little experiment.

I began at five o'clock on a Monday afternoon.

5:30: My mother calls, with oodles of advice about relatives, the kids, work, health. By 5:45, she's broken me and I revert to my usual role as the annoyed son and willing gossip partner. On both counts, I've blown it. I decide to call off my quest until midnight.

1:10 a.m.: Mara, my wife, plops two-year old Daniel next to me in bed, jarring me from dreams of making the world better for nice people. "I'm sorry I didn't hear his screaming," I mutter, "I'll listen better next time." Perfect. I manage to suppress my knee-jerk response ("Listen, if the kid's bawling, why should we both have to suffer?"), and diffuse a potential chain reaction of verbal violence. I'm getting the hang of this.

5:05 a.m.: Four-year old Ethan plows into the bed, screaming, "Daniel is in my spot!" Again, I subdue the anger impulse, suggesting calmly that all Hammerman children return to their own beds. "Then carry me," my 49 pound eldest demands, always able to sense weakness in his parental prey. I do, with a forced smile, like a senator making nice to a wealthy lobbyist.

7:30 a.m.: I tip-toe out the door, leaving the domestic part of Speak No Evil Day successfully
behind me.

As a rabbi, I represent a tradition that recognizes evil speech as an addiction and equates it with physical assault. But I'm human too, and since I spend most of my day communicating, the potential for verbal lapse is ever-present. On this day, I need to avoid all temptation. Driving to my rounds at the hospital, I switch from Imus and Stern to classical music. I miss the dirt. I need coffee.

9:25: An elderly patient whispers to me that the hospital is filled with anti-Semites conspiring to steal her flowers. I hold her hand, calmly, saying, "The people here are very nice." The word "nice" is beginning to get to me. As I leave the hospital, I smile at everyone, including an orderly sweeping the floor. He seems agitated. I'm stepping on his mop.

11:30: Back at the office, a phone call from a man moving to the 'burbs from Manhattan. I try to talk up Stamford without saying anything derogatory about the noisy, filthy, crime-infested city he inhabits (just kidding, Big Apple-ites; I love New York). It's not easy. I'm famished.

12:14 p.m.: As I return from a quick bite of anything-sweet-I-can-find, my secretary tells me that she didn't know I would be back so soon, so my 12:15 appointment, a potential new congregant, has left.

"You sent her home?!"

It's not quite a shout but I know instantly that I've gone beyond my strict boundaries. I apologize profusely. It turns out the appointment is waiting for me in the library. She badmouths another local congregation. I go out of my way to defend it. The conversation fizzles after that.
With each encounter that follows, I walk on verbal eggshells. I meet with a divorced couple, planning their child's Bar Mitzvah. Thankfully both are there, so neither can talk about the other.

A close friend calls, a primary source for community gossip. I'm afraid to ask a simple "How is everything," for fear of what could follow. I have a deep thirst for some juicy stuff and sense an unnatural distance between us. What can I say to convey warmth without it being at the expense of innocent others? The call ends, abruptly. A congregant stops by to discuss a program she is working on, and states flatly of a co-worker, "Doesn't she drive you crazy?" Either a no or a yes makes me an accomplice to defamation. I pretend not to hear. Another rabbi calls, asking me for an evaluation of a teacher applying for a job in his synagogue. I've only good things to say, but every word feels like a dagger, every sentence a thrust. Through the day, I manage to deflect deprecatory comments about everyone from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Yasser Arafat.

3:30: I am courteous to a phone solicitor offering "Rabie" Hammerman a Visa Gold card.

3:40: I stand before 75 restless Hebrew School students, wishing to dock them from life eternal if they don't shut up. I've a splitting headache. I'm ready to give myself over to a higher power.
Exhausted, I go home, flick on the tube and hear Dole attacking Forbes. I turn it off; in local news, Ethan reports that Daniel was pinching and kicking at gymnastics class. From day one, we are programmed to blame and defame.

The morning after: I am humbled by my noble failure and far less inclined to blame talk show hosts and Washingtonians for this national addiction. With or without a Senate resolution, I will have to shake it alone, step by step, word by word. On May 14, I'll try again.

A Tribute to Mel Allen (Eulogy given at his funeral)

Delivered at his Funeral, June 19, 1996

There is a prayer that Jews recite three times daily known as the Amida. This is in many ways our most significant prayer, containing within it the essence of our personal and collective aspirations. And it begins with a peculiar line, always recited silently, taken from Psalm 51.

"Lord, open my lips that my words might speak your praise." This phrase is actually a prayer that we be able to pray. For Judaism is a faith that emphasizes the significance of each word, and considers each word uttered with perfect authenticity a prayer. Each breath is a prayer, each utterance, if authentic, is an expression of our Godliness, each sentence, if it comes from the soul, is testimony to the wonder of being alive, of the miracles that God has given us.

Mel Allen's life was one long, extended, exhaustive, exhilarating, triumphant prayer. It was a call to all of us to see the sublimity in the smallest things, the pitch one inch off the corner, the stolen sign, the first seasonal shifts of the wind. And as for the larger things, he coined the most sublime expression of wonder of all, radical amazement in three short words: "How About That." To have lived to have been able to witness something worth a "How About That," that, to him was a gift. Whether it was a triple play or a mammoth clout, with those three words, Mel Allen was able to elevate broadcasting to the realm of prayer, not just for him, but for the millions who clung to every word he spoke. And he was so fortunate, and he knew it, to have seen Gehrig and Ruth, to have chronicled the heroic deeds of Mantle and Dimaggio, to have placed the imprint of the bard on Don Larson's moment, to have helped us all to say, week after week, night after night, "How About That."

Mel Allen was a good, humble and sensitive man. He was a loving son who took care of his parents in their old age -- only, through his sensitivity, he led his parents to believe that they were moving up here from Alabama to help him. When his father was ill, he said to them, "I need you to make a home for me up here." Such exquisite sensitivity. And after they passed on, they continued to be in his thoughts. Every year, at our memorial service in the cemetery next door, Mel would be there, with his sister Esther of course, to remember.

Imagine the kindness of this man, a man in a position to be overpowering and cruel and get away with it; but not Mel. He understood the sheer miracle of his good fortune in life and recognized the power of his words. Imagine, his was a voice that spoke so many millions of words, so many millions, heard by so many millions of people, and yet how few of those words were spoken in anger or bitterness, how few shaming another person, how few containing the gossip that poisons today's vernacular, and how many simple words of wonder and praise. It was as if every time he sat in front of a microphone or otherwise opened his mouth he uttered that line from psalms, "Lord, open my lips so that my words might speak your praise."

Mel would probably be laughing right now, because of his humility, and he never spoke of death, never really prepared himself or us for this moment. He wouldn't have wanted us to make a big deal: we're talking about a man who in grammar school was allowed to skip a grade in the middle of the year and he never thought to tell his parents. But with all due respect to his humility, we must speak his praise. Bert Parks once called him the nicest man in the whole industry. Walter Cronkite telephoned him at home a short while back, and that call really touched Mel. While the two had been at the same network they hardly ever conversed, but Walter wanted to thank him, decades after the fact, for being so kind in showing him around the studio when he was just starting out.

In the '50s when Mel was at the height of his career, he received a call from an assistant football coach in the midwest who had some interest in being a sportscaster. Mel Allen spent over an hour with this young man on the phone and left a lasting impression. It was only years later that George Steinbrenner reminded him of the incident.

His kindness went beyond normal expectations. As a teacher in Alabama, he once gave a failing grade to Bear Bryant. But he did it nicely. And in his '20s, Mel Allen actually decked someone, a Klansman. He beat the tar out of him, and then years later he found out that they guy was living in Connecticut, so Mel called him and said, "You want another lickin'?" The man couldn't remember who it was, so Mel took him to lunch. It says in Proverbs, "If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat." Mel had a knack of turning enemies into friends.

When we think of Mel Allen, it will be with that microphone in front of him, but let us first recall the kind words that always came out of the mouth that spoke into that mike. He achieved greatness through hard work and good fortune and genuine talent, but never through malice, deceit or backstabbing. He achieved every honor imaginable, he is a resident of several Halls of Fame, but it didn't change him one bit.

And when we think of Mel, inevitably we'll think of baseball. Undoubtedly, some of you are here today mourning today not only the loss of a good person but the end of an era, a time when baseball reminded us of all that was good, an innocence that baseball has long since lost but Mel himself maintained until the end. We felt that as long as Mel was with us, maybe we could regain that lost youth, that passion, that innocence.

But here we are: today is the day when the man who coined the name Joltin' Joe has left and gone away. Baseball's era of gentility lies before us.

And we are here to mourn the silencing of that voice. A journalist once called him the Homer of homers. Now that can be taken in many ways; but the intention was to designate Mel as the Homeric poet of the home run. His magnificent descriptive talents were on display especially when the drama hit its heights, and this gift was matched perfectly with a team and a time that immortalized him as he immortalized them. Another journalist once exclaimed that his voice had been decorated by a florist. I can see that. It resonated, but with class, with style, with a combination of southern grace and Jewish irony: And that fabulous sense of humor, well that was both southern and Jewish. Night after night, October after October, Mel Allen composed the epic poem of baseball's Homeric age. And for that he'll live on long after most of the heroes he described have faded from memory.

Most who knew Mel know that his passion for his work was unquenchable. He never really stopped working. Just over the past several days, he was making preparations to return to This Week in Baseball. Through an illness that would have stopped lesser men, I saw Mel struggling, and at times doubting it all, but never willing to give in to it. For him, giving up his work, and his game, would have meant giving in. He didn't keep working for ego or status. Undoubtedly it gave him satisfaction to be appreciated, I know how much that meant to him to be so much a part of the Yankee family. But Mel didn't do this for the glory. To silence his voice would have been to silence his soul.

Two years ago, just hours prior to Yom Kippur, baseball officially cancelled the World Series for the first time in Mel's lifetime. Everywhere, people were in deep mourning. How could it be the fall without the Fall Classic? Where would our heroes come from? What would become of our nation without our national pastime? The baseball world, the country and the calendar were entering an autumnal abyss.

I wasn't sure what to say to Mel that evening. I wanted to comfort him in the hope that he could comfort me. So I said to him, "Such a sad day." And Mel, in his matter of fact way, which could often mask deep wisdom as plain common sense, replied: "This is not a tragedy. War, now that's tragic. Poverty and hunger, that's a tragedy. This is not a tragedy."

And I ascended this pulpit that night a whole lot wiser. Mr. Baseball, the one I had thought lived and breathed only for the game, made me understand that it was just a game, a game which lived and breathed through him, but only inasmuch as it expressed the drama, beauty and poetry of life. It wasn't the game that mattered: it was the living and breathing. It was on that night that the Voice of the Yankees enabled this Red Sox fan to understand that ultimately we are all on the same team.

Mr. Baseball had his priorities straight. So while he will best be remembered for his association with the sport, and while one of his final activities was watching the Yankees win on Sunday, let us never forget the lesson he taught me that night. Let us mourn today not because baseball has severed its final tie to innocence, but because the human race has lost a voice that brought us closer to one another and closer to God. And let us celebrate today too. For Mel's voice, which was his essence, which became the essence of his sport, will never be silenced. The Lord opened his mouth, his words spoke God's praise, and those words will reverberate unto eternity.

May that voice continue to resonate through the heavens and through our souls, and may his gentle spirit be bound up in the web of life.

Birth Rite (New York Times Magazine)

The New York Times Magazine, March 13 1994

PDF of original article

As one of their duties, rabbis guide nervous parents through the ritual wounding their son’s genitalia on the eighth day following birth. I know, because as a Conservative rabbi for the past 10 years, I have done exactly that.

I’ve led hundreds of mothers and fathers through their baby boys’ circumcisions, reciting my routine explanations in favor of the ritual. But it was not until last year, after the birth of my son Daniel, that I came to appreciate the deeper meaning behind circumcision. True, I had witnessed hundreds of cuttings, but until that day I had never myself performed one.

As a rabbi and as a parent, I had figured that my second son’s circumcision would be like that of the first. I assumed I would chant a blessing or two, then daub his mouth with wine-soaked gauze. But the mohel (circumciser), with whom I had worked countless times suddenly handed me the knife. He pointed to my squirming Son, whose hands and legs were tied to the board. The foreskin had been pulled up over the glans of the penis and was now protruding through a narrow slit of the small, stainless steel clamp.
"It's all set up," the mohel said. "No way you can go wrong."

"It's the greatest honor a father can have," he added.

He had taken that line right out of my script. But there was one difference: I remind parents that they have the option of delegating to the mohel the performance of that radical affirmation of the covenant between the Jewish people and God.

"All you have to do is cut," he said.

Daniel, who had been crying incessantly throughout, suddenly stopped. Like Isaac centuries before, Daniel waited in silence for his father's knife to drop.

Daniel had spent most of his first week of life blissfully attached to one of the other of my wife Mara's breasts while I played computer games with our 2-year old Ethan. I also attended to the medical insurance, informed relatives of Daniel’s birth, got his Social Security number and shopped for food. In short, I had become Master of the Mundane – until I was handed the knife.

Since the day Abraham circumcised Isaac, the knife has transformed father into sculptor, asserting his responsibility to mold and perfect nature. The knife also turns father into mentor, one willing to inflict pain for the sake of proper moral development.

But most of all, the knife turns father into potential murderer. It is no coincidence that only one biblical chapter after Abraham circumcises Isaac, he nearly slaughters him, perhaps with the same knife. One does not have to be a Freudian to know that the birth of a son brings about more than unalloyed joy to the father. There is no greater primal anger than that caused by seeing another male in carnal contact with your wife, in this case the physical intimacy of mother and son. And there is no greater primal envy than that caused by looking down at the person who was brought into the world specifically to be your survivor. In traditional Jewish society a male child was called a "kaddish," the one who would say the memorial prayers when the parent dies. With the birth of a "kaddish," the father hears a whisper that it is now all right to die.

In the face of this anger and jealousy, give the father a knife and ask him to do that? There? And besides, I’m squeamish. The last time I gave blood, I passed out. I shave only with an electric razor. I'm a vegetarian. And finally…well, let’s just say that I am no surgeon. Mara and I ruminate for hours before cutting our baby's fingernails. But with our friends and relatives waiting impatiently, what was I to do when the mohel gave me the knife? I took it in my right hand, forgetting that I bat, throw, eat and probably cut foreskins best lefty, and swallowed hard.

My hand trembled as I began to push the blade across the edge of the clamp through which an inch of my infant's foreskin protruded. But the blade wasn't cutting easily. The seconds felt like hours as my hand swayed back and forth.

The situation called for a hard, sturdy chop. It called for a butcher. In fact, in the Middle Ages the community’s mohel was often the one who slaughtered animals for kosher meat. Looking at my son, I realized success required tunnel vision, to regard the skin as lifeless, distinct from the person attached to it. But I wasn't used to cutting meat, raw or cooked. Was this what it was all about? Unprovoked aggression? Dehumanization of one's own flesh and blood? It was becoming clear that in order to finish the job I would have to rely on a carnivorous side that I didn't think existed, that I feared greatly.

Then Daniel began to cry again.

I suppose that had Abraham fumbled things this badly, even stoic Isaac might have cried. But Daniel let loose a wail that normally was reserved for four in the morning and was always assuaged by a speedy rendezvous with his mother. This time, though, there were just the two of us. I was holding the knife, and he appeared to sense its power.

Then I noticed for the first time his blue eyes looking straight into mine, and it was a look not of fear but of utter dependence and trust. It was the kind of look we Masters of the Mundane aren't used to getting from infants.

I finally understood that the knife transforms the father not to sculptor, mentor, or butcher, but, paradoxically, into a shield. The breast provides, but the knife protects. It channels a father's natural anger and jealousy into one controlled cut. He takes off one small part in order to preserve – and love – the whole.

A rush of guilt and fear went through me. I just wanted to hold Daniel and tell him that never again would he suffer the agony of rampant parental rage. With one burst of empathy and a series of short jagged flicks, the foreskin was gone. The mohel cleaned things up and it was over.

No parent should be denied this experience, even vicariously, of inflicting upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him both shake and recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand. For it is from the father's hand that Abraham's knife dangles, every moment of every day.