Monday, March 31, 2008

Yom HaShoah Meets Earth Day

The Jewish Week 04/21/2006

This year, Earth Day (April 22) and Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 24-25) fall just a couple of days apart, giving us an opportunity to explore some connections between the two.

In Jewish tradition, respect for the health of the environment and concern for the dignity of human beings go hand in hand. The Nazis were notorious for their pillage of both the land and its inhabitants, and Eastern Europe is paying the price for that to this day. Judaism is so concerned about the earth that we have our own annual Earth Day, Tu b’Shevat, not to mention a weekly one, Shabbat.

Several years ago I visited the site of Dachau, the concentration camp just outside Munich. I say that I visited the “site” of Dachau, because it wasn’t Dachau. Yes, the name was there, right next to the infamous inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Yes, the barbed wire was there, and the barracks, remarkably well preserved, and the ovens. Yes, there were memorials to the dead, marking mass graves of nameless victims. But it wasn’t Dachau.

Dachau was hell and this wasn’t it. There were flowers at this place, surrounded by fresh-cut grass. I could hear birds. I even saw a butterfly, which confirmed for me that this was not Dachau, for the famous Holocaust poem tells us that there were no butterflies in the death camps.

If this was not hell, then what was it, and why did it suddenly look so lovely, so natural? Was this a cruel trick by God, a vain attempt to reclaim that which God had ceded to the beast in humanity in 1933? Or was this God’s apology, this smattering of forget-me-nots and daisies embedded in cemetery sod, a plea for forgiveness, too little and too late?

Or maybe God was hoping, beyond hope, to give Jews one last chance to regain the illusion of an attainable paradise on earth, a thin veneer of April hope covering the reality of August hell.

“Here,” God is telling us, “I can’t give you redemption. All I can give you is this spring-like illusion. Let it ease the pain of your wanderings. Take it.”

On Yom HaShoah we say to God that this plan, however comforting and kind, can’t possibly work. We reject the illusion. We have seen hell first-hand; it won’t be forgotten. Time will not heal this wound. If renewal is possible following the Holocaust, a God who was absent during it cannot bring it about. God, who could not save the Jews, will also not redeem the earth. If renewal and hope are at all possible, only human beings can facilitate it.

Anyone can grow a few forget-me-nots.

There are two seemingly contradictory verses in Psalms: Psalm 24 tells us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” while we read in Psalm 115, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth has been given to humankind.” This discrepancy can be resolved by drawing from it this lesson: Once upon a time, the earth was the Lord’s, but since the Holocaust, it is ours and ours alone.

Before the Shoah, when the earth still belonged to God, we, who had once experienced Paradise first-hand, could only imagine Eden’s opposite. As David Grossman wrote in his masterful novel, “See Under: Love,” “We always pictured hell with boiling lava and pitch bubbling in barrels,” until the Nazis came along, “showing us how paltry our pictures were.”

Now, nothing is left to the imagination. The earth is ours and we are utterly responsible for all that happens to it; all of it, the people, and the flowers, too. Those flowers at Dachau have become a symbol of God’s ultimate helplessness and our ultimate responsibility. We still pray, though no longer for divine intervention, but in gratitude for the basic tools provided us: warm summer days, rain in its season, the miraculous ecosystem. We look to heaven for resolve but little else, for “the earth has been given to humankind.”

And the blood of our brother Abel is screaming from that very earth. We must care for the earth because our ancestors and martyrs are buried within it. The earth is not only their legacy to us; it is them — their bones, their blood, their illusions, their dreams, and their follies. Their cries seep through the ozone layer. Their tears fall as acid rain. Defoliated rainforests uncover their nakedness. We cannot go anywhere without walking on their bones. We must tend to their graves.

The earth is not only ours, it is us. Chief Seattle, a Native American leader of the last century, wrote, “This we know, the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.” And in time our bones will rest there too, serving as a firm platform upon which our grandchildren will walk.
In caring for our planet, we sanctify the names of those who died and affirm life for those not yet born. We do it not out of the illusory hope that the world can be as it was, for we shall never return to Eden. We do it because we have to, because it is our responsibility. No one else will do it for us. And if we succeed, if the world becomes a better place for our grandchildren, then we’ll have taken a small step toward resuscitating a measure of hope. This is the best we can hope to accomplish in the aged of scorched flesh and earth.

So this year, I’ll mark Earth Day and Yom HaShoah with sadness and grim determination.

Because as a Jew, a human being and a guardian of the planet, I have no other choice.

Why an American Chief Rabbinate is No Joke

The Jewish Week 2000

This idea came to me as a joke, but before I had the chance to tell it to anyone, I let it bounce around in my mind for about a month, more than enough time for a crazy idea to begin to make sense. So now, here goes:

We need an American Chief Rabbinate.


You can get up off the floor now.

Please, please, sit in this chair and let me explain.

You see, I was attending the recent national conference of Boards of Rabbis arranged by the New York Board of Rabbis. Several dozen chairmen (all happened to be men) of local, multi-denominational rabbinic councils got together and we were pleased to discover how well Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis get along on the local level, once you get away from the national limelight. While the group decided not to expand this effort for the time being, I couldn't help but think how nice it would be to take this to the next level. We then heard Eugene Fisher, a bishop whose job it is to dialogue with Jewish leaders, complain that Catholics never know which Jewish leader to conduct national dialogue with. So why not send 'em our champion, I thought, a Rabbi's Rabbi, one who can represent us all, and the Torah, at the same time. Great Britain has a Chief Rabbinate. Israel has one. Why not us?

Yes I know that as a democratic country with a separation of religion and state, we have never needed a head rabbi to speak for the Jewish religious minority, as in England. And yes, I know that a Chief Rabbinate is susceptible to corruption, especially when allotted huge chunks of political power and tons of money, as in Israel. Why would I want to create that type of mess here?

Because the fact of having had corrupt individuals in office shouldn't mean that the office is inherently bad (we didn't get rid of the Presidency because of Richard Nixon).
Because in America, the Chief Rabbinate would not control the political balance of power, as in Israel.

Because we need a Chief Rabbinate not so much to dialogue with Popes and Presidents as to be an example of moral and spiritual excellence to our own people.

Because we can create a system that would minimize the potential for corruption and enhance our unity.

Because we've got a mess here already, and the current system of choosing leaders has failed to correct it.

One objective of the grand merger now taking place involving the U.J.A, U.I A. and Council of Federations is to create a "single voice, a single message, and a common vision for the future," according to Richard Wexler, a co-President of this new Partnership. But that single voice remains elusive. At the same time, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is having trouble clearing its collective throat.

How many of the top leaders of these superagencies are rabbis -- and if any are, is that by design or by accident? If rabbis want to be major players on the American Jewish scene right now, the choices are either to shout from the wilderness or spout the party line from the inside. True rabbinic influence is mostly indirect and diffuse: a spoken word from the pulpit here, a leadership seminar there, maybe a column or two in the local newspaper. We're expected to stay above politics. If our first rabbi, Moses, had opted to stay above the fray, we'd still be building pyramids. The U.J.A. Rabbinic Cabinet is a perfect example of how the current insider model doesn't work. While that group, of which I am a member, supports many worthy causes, it is as much involved in true leadership as the House of Lords. It's a certified Kavod Committee that never is allowed to stray from the party line assigned from the lay leadership above.

That's not good for any of us. American Jewry needs a division of power, one that allows for substantial rabbinic involvement at the very top. A rabbi, to be a rabbi, has got to lead. American Jewry, to be truly Jewish, has got to be led by those who understand Judaism best.

Keep in mind that since the destruction of the Second Temple, the prime leaders and spokespeople for the Jewish communities of the Diaspora have been rabbis -- until America became the first large Jewish community where rabbis were reduced to a secondary role. This stems both from Americans' strong democratic instincts and even stronger distrust of clerical leadership. Many of our grandparents left Europe precisely to get out from under the yoke of rabbis. But we have suffered because of this aversion.

No wonder we have had so few great leaders recently. In the previous generation, when we did have some giants, most were rabbis. For every Brandeis there was a Heschel, a Soloveichik, a Silver and a Wise, each at the center of the action. We have some notable rabbis now, but the system we have in place marginalizes them at a time when we need their vision more than ever.
The ideal rabbinic leadership model for our purposes is the prophet Nathan, who had the vision and courage to call King David to account for his terrible sins of adultery and murder. Nathan was an insider, very much part of the system, yet independent enough to have his say publicly, revered enough to be heeded and respected enough to keep his job afterwards. What we need is a Nathan-al Chief Rabbi, someone who unlike King David and Prince Wexler, must answer to a Higher Authority.

My hope is that a National Board of Rabbis will eventually grow out of grass roots efforts such as the conference I attended. Then, with the active support of the Conference of Presidents and U.J.A. - Federation, but not under their umbrella, this National Board would establish guidelines to set up a Chief Rabbinate of maybe half a dozen rabbis representing the major denominations. Its mandate would be to build on our common interests, achieve constructive dialogue on stickier inter-denominational matters and speak out independently and with recognized authority on all issues. From this group a single Chief Rabbi would serve, on a rotating basis, to represent American Jewry as its primarily national spokesperson. One would hope that enough checks and balances would be put into the system to ensure that power wouldn't be abused and that our most talented rabbinic leaders would rise to the top. If I had my druthers, someone of the caliber of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg would be the first to hold that esteemed office.

So, you're asking, how in my wildest dreams do I think it possible that the religious leaders of different denominations would be able to get along?

Because we already do. In communities all across this country, we do. We get along because we have to and because most rabbis are good, moral people who care about the Jewish future -- we wouldn't have become rabbis otherwise. We need to elevate rabbinic leadership to the point that when a chief of state wants to check the pulse of American Jewry, the person we send will represent the best of who we are, what we've been and what we hope to become, a person of the highest moral standards, humility and wisdom. Some crazy ideas turn out not to be so crazy after all.

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.

Too Jewish -- Or Not Jewish Enough?

The Jewish Week 8/00

A few years ago, a Jewish Museum exhibit entitled "Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities" poked fun at all the things that make American Jews so insecure. There were a lot of pictures of noses in that exhibit, and the revelation that Barbie, the ultimate non-Jewish goddess, was actually invented by Jews. The sad fact is that Jews have often responded to uncomfortable stereotypes by internalizing them. That s why the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman for the Democratic ticket is having so profound an effect on the American Jewish psyche. Instantly it has smashed the myth of "too Jewish" to bits and replaced it with a non-ethnic, value-based, positive and heaven forbid religious approach to being Jewish and in power that we ve not seen on the larger political stage since, well, the original Joseph in the Bible.

Some will undoubtedly wax nostalgic for all those "too Jewish" role models of yore: the neurotic, self-effacing skeptic, the nebbish, the nerd and the non-believer, the shmoozer and the shlemiel. Lieberman is none of these. He s the anti-Woody Allen, the UnKissinger. And that s why, despite their immense pride in his accomplishments, many Jews feel conflicted by the seriousness with which he takes his Jewishness, while the rest of America is admiring that very thing. That Lieberman keeps kosher seems downright unkosher to those weaned on the lox and bagels of the assimilation mythos.

In his acceptance speech in Nashville, the senator invoked the name of God more times in five minutes than some rabbis do in a month. American Jews have come to expect muffled God-talk and overall blandness from their leaders, because the "too Jewish" ethos is based on the premise that everything Jewish has to be toned down, including God.

Lieberman began his speech with an English, modified version of the Shehechianu prayer, a breathtaking exclamation at the miracle of being alive and of the fulfillment of a personal journey. When Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Rabin prayed on the White House lawn, that was OK. They re Israelis. They re supposed to pray. But for "too Jewish" Jews, Lieberman s gesture might have seemed over the top. That palpable sigh of relief you might have heard came from those Jews, grateful that at least he didn t don a yarmulke. It was one thing for Sandy Koufax not to pitch on Yom Kippur. But not to campaign on Saturday? Every Saturday? And Friday night too? What kind of meshugenah is this guy?

Face it. Joe Lieberman has blown Sandy Koufax out of the water, replacing him overnight as the prime role model for every Jewish child -- and Dodger fans aren t the only ones a little uneasy about this.

It has become axiomatic that Jews lag far behind other faith groups in attendance at Sabbath worship. I don t think Lieberman s nomination will suddenly result in a mass exodus from the golf course on Saturday mornings, but the degree of discomfort will multiply each time a non-Jewish caddy comments, "Say, isn t this your Sabbath?" When kosher meals are being rushed to every campaign stop and state dinner, that sizzling lobster on the plate will suddenly glare back at "too Jewish" Jews with stern accusatory eyes not seen since Hebrew School. Suddenly the typical American Jew will have gone from being "too Jewish" to "not Jewish enough."

Lieberman s brand of traditionalism is not the type one can easily dismiss as "fringe" or "fanatic." In truth, he and his family embrace the values of the religious Jewish mainstream, including many non-Orthodox Jews who take Judaism seriously. For millions of others Jews, however, this nomination could trigger nightmares of ambivalence and self-hatred. That s why it s a given that some of Lieberman s staunchest critics over the next few months will come from his co-religionists. Not that he should be beyond criticism but I would hope that "too Jewish" Jews won t now go witch-hunting for hints of ritual hypocrisy (the way Republicans will now scrounge for signs of moral two-facedness), as the senator makes the necessary compromises between religious observance and duty to his country.

We've already seen the first salvos fired in this regard, with a story in the Drudge Report that Lieberman was seen drinking following a noontime rally in very hot Atlanta on the fast day of Tisha B Av. I admit to having left his Stamford rally early the previous evening, en route to my own synagogue s Tisha B Av observance, wondering how the senator would handle this first potential conflict between duty to party and to faith. But even had I seen him drinking, I d never have held it up as a sign of hypocrisy, as the Drudge story seems to be implying. As a rabbi I know all too well that those who set the bar high both ritually and morally, become terribly vulnerable to such scrutiny from the real hypocrites among us.

If only all Jews could see what the rest of America already understands: We are in. Jewish chic has achieved new heights with Lieberman, but it was already prevalent in a society that had long since invited Seinfeld into its living rooms, rendered Oreos kosher and now Twinkies too, the Barbie of snack foods learned sex from a Shmuley Boteach, theology from Harold Kushner and investing from Alan Greenspan.

It's time Jews got beyond all the hang-ups of "too Jewish" and "not Jewish enough." We need new role models. In Lieberman, we ve got one for the ages.

The Zigzag Life

The Jewish Week 2/17/06

A couple of years ago, when visiting Jerusalem during the height of the Terror War, I had the pleasure of witnessing a series of skits presented by a popular Israeli theatrical troupe named Nalaga’at (“Do Not Touch”), consisting primarily of actors who are both deaf and blind. The touching production is entitled, “Light is heard in Zigzag.” At a time when Israelis reasonably feared that every bus ride, every cup of coffee, could be their last, when each mundane act contained tremors of impending apocalypse, they were inspired by the heroic daily activities of people for whom the simplest affirmations of life had become the ultimate triumph.

Adina Gal, one of the co-directors of Nalaga’at, said that when she began working with the group many of the actors had been contemplating suicide, but now they understood the contribution they could make to society. That in turn has changed her. "I always believed that there is no limit to the human spirit,” she said, “and, yes, today I know it, and this one of the biggest gifts I got in life."

For the dozen disabled actors of Nalaga’at, simple survival becomes an act of transcendence, and through their performance we begin to perceive sight and hearing in a different way, not as straightforward products of the eye, ear and brain, but as indirect perceptions, as resonant metaphors. We “hear” light in zigzag, just as the trembling Israelites “saw” the thunder at Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:15. Each moment of life vibrates with significance and sometimes the most powerful path to truth is the one that is least direct. Just as light and sound reach us obliquely, in waves, rather than in a straight line, so is life truly lived in zigzag.

Scientists and philosophers have long discussed the implications of linear versus cyclical time. Judaism presents us with a perfect balance of both. When I pick up the Kiddush cup on Friday night at 6:01 and finish the prayer at 6:03, I’ve moved forward two minutes in linear time. I’m two minutes farther removed from Creation – and that much closer to my death. But simultaneously I’ve tapped into distant memories of other Kiddushes on other Shabbats: I see my late father’s smile as I chime in with the final verse, I see my great grandparents, whom I never met, singing the prayer with their grandson, my father, at their side; I see Moses at Sinai reading off the fourth commandment, and I see God at Creation’s twilight, replenishing the Soul of the Universe. While I’ve undoubtedly moved forward by those two minutes, I’ve also tapped into a timeless cycle of an ever-present Shabbat.

Exodus 12 is one of my favorite examples of life in zigzag. Just as the Israelites are about to escape centuries of slavery with a dab of lamb’s blood on the door, we pause for a message from our sponsor. Moses gives the Israelites detailed instructions as to how Passover is to be celebrated generations into the future, right down to the matzah, the bitter herbs and the search for leaven. These slaves haven’t yet dipped their toes in the Red Sea and already they’re being given the school vacation calendar for 5766.

But that’s exactly the point. The first thing free people need is a calendar. They need to control time. And for Jews, a life of freedom is one where time’s tyranny is vanquished. We “pass over” the angel of death by conjuring an eternal present that lies beyond the destroyer’s grasp.

The zigzag path is normally associated with someone who is either drunk, learning how to ride a bicycle, skiing or fleeing a hail of bullets. Only the crow gets to fly directly to North Dakota; we have to zigzag by way of O’Hare. But how many of us would choose if given the option for non-stop, to take the least direct route – the path of the zigzag, the drunkard’s way?

Natan Sharansky did. When the former refusnik finally won his freedom after spending years in prison camps and a lifetime in Soviet captivity, his first supreme gesture as a free man was to walk in a zigzag across the bridge, to the other side where his liberators awaited. One would think that he would have run across, given his intense thirst for freedom and desire for reunification with his wife Avital. Yet when a Soviet officer ordered him to go straight over the bridge and make no turns, Sharansky said, “Since when have I started making agreements with the KGB? If you tell me to go straight, I’ll go crooked!”

Sharansky knew that life is lived in zigzag. History moves relentlessly forward, but to be fully human and fully free means to have the cherished ability to transcend time’s arrow and decelerate its monotonous, torrid pace.

A while back, a congregant in the hospital, recovering from a painful ski injury, recalled the 1998 film “Sliding Doors,” in which the protagonist’s future hinges on whether she makes it onto a departing train. The film gives us two versions, one in which she makes it and the other where the doors slide shut.

My congregant related the film to her own experiences, wondering what the past two hellish weeks would have been like had she veered left instead of right. She probably would have lived out those days in meaningless daily drudgery, not appreciating her good fortune, she surmised. When she heals from the injury, I suggested, she may find that her life has actually been enriched because she zigged when she should have zagged.

But such is the way of Judaism’s giant slalom. Replace the first “l” with an “h” and slalom becomes shalom. Through the zigs and zags of our wavy descent, our hellos become indistinguishable from our goodbyes and our descent lands us back on top of the mountain – ready to begin anew.

The Wall and the Mall

The Jewish Week, 8/97

As an American patriot, I take great pride in how my behemoth nation has colonized the universe with its cultural assets. Pax Americana has now even reached Mars, having long-since overrun earthly Jerusalem. But as I set out on a recent visit to Israel, mindful of growing complaints of "Americanization" by my Israeli friends, I was anxious to find new evidence of the Great Satan's work. And indeed, I didn't have to look far to find the ugliest aspects of my complicated country -- at the Western Wall.

The Kotel I encountered last month was as stratified as a Greenwich country club, as immaculate as Disney World and as spiritless as a Republican Convention. This was not the Kotel I had first encountered as a teen twenty four years ago, on Tisha B'Av, when I was one weeper among the multitudes. The chanting of Lamentations that summer evening, the drone of a single coalescing murmur of anguished trope in and above the plaza, made for a communion of tear-swept flesh and stone. Beyond that what struck me was the curious asymmetry of the place: sprawling stones reaching both down and upward, touched by unkempt clumps of moss, topped by smaller bricks carved by dreams of another era, topped by, of all things, a field of TV antennae. Though mundane in normal use, these masses of wire seemed apt here, a reminder that the Kotel -- and God -- exist on the plane of normal human experience.

In ancient times, the Kotel was the Temple's outer, retaining wall, the place where all the people could gather, from the largest to the small, sheep and pigeons in hand, before arriving at the inner courtyards where degrees of separation set in. The Kotel has always been a festival of earthy democracy for the plain folk: the sweaty Herodian-era laborers who moved enormous slabs of rock, the late-Roman period artisan who scribbled joyous graffiti from Isaiah, the dying whispers of medieval pilgrims having reached their long-sought final destination, the teary paratroopers in '67, the final breath of my grandmother who never got there.

When I first came to Kotel that Tisha B'Av, I saw a white dove about halfway up, glowing in the light, perched on a nest of moss. I quivered with recognition of the Shechina, God's most manifest and loving presence, sent to that very spot to weep with Her people among the ruins. For centuries, that legend and that weeping bound motionless stones to a yearning nation.
Enter the Great Satan. Now the TV antennae are gone and the plaza is as clean and symmetrical as ever. Its aesthetic beauty is unquestioned, like the 18th hole at Augusta, but the sanitized Wall has lost its wail, like a Disneyfied Times Square. The plaza has also lost its democratic ardor, having become as foreigner-friendly as California. A decade ago, I had no problem bringing groups of congregants to the middle of the plaza, men and women together, for Friday evening services, after which we would approach the Wall as individuals to share in the euphoric cacophony of singing Yeshiva students, tourists, new immigrant, worn pilgrims and curious seekers and long-lost friends from the States. At the Wall, the Jewish body beat with one heart.

Now the stones have lost their heart and strangers beware. On Friday night, the hugs and singing have been replaced by a stony silence and a level of suspicion worthy of a Manhattan subway. My group could not pray together, else we risk a Shavuot-style garbage pelting. So we prayed on the newly-excavated steps facing the Southern Wall. When we reached the Kotel afterwards, no one embraced us. No one asked if we needed a place for Shabbat, as so many had years ago. Small cantons of Haredim prayed in pantomime; we kept our distance, hoping for a spiritual trickle-down effect.

About twenty feet from the Wall, an updated version of "West Side Story" was being played out. A dozen Reform Jews from Miami, all men, sang "Lecha Dodi" defiantly in a circle while Haredim stared and caucused, figuring out what to do with them. One slipped dangerously close to the group, bending over to investigate the Xeroxed prayer booklet, as if examining a lettuce for bugs. The Reform service concluded. Triumphantly, they had reclaimed their piece of the rock.

But this was a shallow victory: there was no singing and celebrating, no holding of hands, only the holding of turf. "Western Wall Story" has become a classic American Western, and Friday evening has become its High Noon.

And when I looked up, the dove was gone.

The Shechina has left the building.

And where has She gone? Why to the Mall, of course, where the people of Israel share a common
language and meet on an equal canvas, bearing first fruits and exchanging them for a sip of coffee and a snippet of intimate conversation. Everyone is there, sharing small talk at Sbarros on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street, or folk dancing at Ben and Jerry's on Tel Aviv's beach front.

If this all reeks of American cultural imperialism, I beg to differ. While the Western Wall has become bad Disney, the Mall has made Burger King a touchstone to the Sacred. A kosher Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't about the Americanization of Israel, it's about the Judaization of Americanism -- at long last Colonel Sanders has discovered our secret recipe for the santification of life. At the new Jerusalem Mall there is equal access from every gate. Priests, Levites, women, the disabled, tourists: all are treated in like manner. A mall with honest shop owners, separate meat and dairy food courts and even a synagogue, is a mall that conveys the best of our value system to the next generation. Amidst the Hebrew Coca Cola bottles and Michael Jordan magazines there is a level of holiness, because they are bringing my children and their Israeli cousins together in a Jewish state speaking a Jewish language.

The Mall, democratic, serendipitous, wide-eyed, infused with Jewish values, just a little bit dirty and a whole lot Israeli; has become a place of pilgrimage and unity for the Jewish people -- just what the Temple's outer courtyard used to be. The Shechina now sits on a nest of astroturf atop the Hard Rock Cafe, weeping no longer, for Her people have returned.

But alas, how lonely sit the ancient stones of the Kotel. I weep for them.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jewish

The Jewish Week

Have you ever stopped to think of how many useless things you've accumulated? Sukkot is a great time to reflect on this this, as we recall our ancestors' journeys through the wilderness with few posessions but enormous faith. This realization also hits me when I head to the outlet malls to buy the exact same khaki pants I purchased a few years before -- only one size larger. I buy the new pants reluctantly, but simultaneously pledge not to part with the old pair, just in case. The Messiah will undoubtedly come before I again fit into them, but I keep the older apparel nonetheless. I hate to throw things away.

It's the same with magazines. In my basement I've got decades of Newsweeks and Sports Illustrateds (worth pittance compared to all those baseball cards my mother chucked), a few ancient copies of Moment and some collector's item copies of the Jerusalem Post when it was left-wing. And then there's my fourth grade math homework, my old harmonica, some Hebrew notebooks with all the original psychedelic alef-bet doodles, and letters; loads of letters, personal, junk and life-transforming -- enough mail to fill the Smithsonian someday after I write the great American-Jewish novel, follow up with my memoirs and die.

But in the unlikely case that I don't become obscenely famous, I've got to start lightening the load.

Baggage accumulation, like the national debt, rises uncontrollably even as we seek to rein it in.

Every Pesach I dutifully perform the ritual of spring cleaning, but with each seder comes another albumful of snapshots, accompanying the escalating collection of clippings for the files, books for the shelves, videos for the cabinet, CDs to replace the tapes to replace the LPs to replace the 45s to replace the 78s, to put next to the 486 to replace the 386 to replace the PC Junior to replace the slide rule. If I were to sit down and read all the books I've got lying an a neat pile on my night table, I'd never have the time to scan the millions of pages of literature I can download right now from the Net or on CD ROM. It is petrifying to note that through computer technology I now have accessible to me a Judaic library greater than the cumulative libraries of all the great and not-so-great sages of the last 2,000 years. This baggage has deep value, but one can suffocate from the sheer weight of it.

Judaism has lots of baggage too. Our core acts of religious expression have been smothered by centuries of accumulated embellishment. Though some piyyutim (religious poems) are beautiful, most come across now like the old clothes that fill my closets. Very few of them actually "fit," and by the time you get around to the best stuff, you're too tired from "trying them on" to notice.
But we keep adding layers, to the point where our tallesim are becoming as weighty as those moon suits worn by the astronauts. As I stand during the Amida, straining to lift myself to angelic heights with each utterance of the word "Kadosh," I am weighted down by so much ballast that it is virtually impossible to pray.

Maimonides wrote about 24 things that keep us from truly doing teshuvah. There are umpteen impediments keeping me from truly baring all before God each moment of each day. If the world is a very narrow bridge, as Nachman of Bratzlav suggested, then in order to cross it we've got to cut loose the loaded U-Haul that we are dragging along. The problem is that the things we jettison might prove valuable to others, including our own children. So we shouldn't obliterate everything, rather we should place the superfluous in storage -- somewhere else. Then, free at last, we can begin to negotiate that narrow bridge.

So what could we do without? What weighs me down? For one, we really don't need the New York Times. Try going without it for a week and we might discover something amazing: our own opinions. On a Jewish communal level, we've probably got a few too many organizations and far too many fund raising dinners. We really don't need two days of Yom Tov in the diaspora and we could cut down on the times we repeat the Sh'ma, Kedusha and Ashrei at services. We could do without lengthy sermons and solos too. But these aren't really what weighs us down.

Our primary burdens are self-inflicted. They include feelings of guilt and inadequacy, unresolved relationships with parents, children, spouses and lovers; and hopelessness. The burden comes not from accumulated photos and fourth grade homework, but from seeing those bygone days as our best days. Then there are the burdens of pretension, status-seeking and conformity. The obsessive fear of change is a horrible burden to bear, and the need to always be right. Hatred is equally terrible, taking so much energy to sustain.

When all these burdens are shed, the other trappings hardly matter. So what if there are two Ashreis, five black-tie dinners and a closet full of outsized pants. These are the peripherals. The junk I shlep from place to place can often spring to life with new, sudden significance, if only I could color them with hope and humility.

If only I allowed myself to shed the extraneous layers and bare my soul before God, not allowing anything to get in the way, not the page number I have to announce next, nor the name of the Kiddush sponsor. Then I would truly be God's instrument, a violin in God's hands, allowing myself to share my most beautiful music with God's world.

I am God's instrument, exposed and lithe. And all the old pictures, the extra prayers and ancient periodicals serve to moisten the strings when I myself am stored away for the night. Even my old harmonica has become a life-giving force; it is the instrument of an instrument. These things can easily accompany me across that narrow bridge, not as the ballast but as the bounce.

If only I could let the baggage go.

The Show Must Go On

Originally Appeared in The Jewish Week 2/9/00

I was 18 at the time, a neophyte iconoclast, bursting with hormonal angst and long, shaggy hair. It was the mid ‘70s, and with the War and Woodstock fading memories, the only thing I could rebel against was, of course, religion.

So I went up to the bima of my home synagogue on that fateful Shabbat morning and delivered the sermon (to this day called by many, "THAT Sermon") at our annual teen-led service. I discussed with great sympathy Aaron’s rebellious sons, who were killed in a flash while performing an unusual sacrifice, an "aish zara (strange fire)." Then I went on to offer my own brand of strange fire, critiquing the repetitive, predictable and overly theatrical offering being made by my elders on that pulpit week after week. I called it a show.

For some reason, the rabbi took offense.

It was a show, and the service I lead today is too -- only now I realize that that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've learned that the question should not be, "Is it a show?" but "Is it a good show?" Is this offering pleasing to the Lord? Is it real?

In rabbinical school I was advised that services can't possibly compete with Lincoln Center and Broadway, so best not to try. OK, I thought, so we’re not supposed to aim for that part of people’s souls that cry when they hear Aida or laugh at the banter of Neil Simon. We can’t compete, so let’s just be mediocre, weighed down by rote, suffocated by committee, callused by custom. I was led to believe that the only way to get people to return to services regularly is either by scheduling special events, (meals, guest speakers, honorees, special cantatas, special sermon themes), or by appealing to guilt.

I never bought into that. It's the service that matters, and my goal has always been to build my message from the power of the service itself, not to educate, but to connect; not to teach, but to inspire. I aim for the emotional jugular, all the time. And if that means adding a dramatic pause here and a well-timed joke there, if it means utilizing some of the tools of the actor and playwright, so be it. Each week, I expose more of my inner self than all the guests on Oprah, not to shock, but to share, to engender vulnerability. There's nothing wrong with drama, as long as it doesn't sink into melodrama. It can be real and still be a show.

What people bemoan as clergy-centered "performance Judaism" has little to do with it being a performance and lots to do with it being a bad performance. How does one differentiate good from bad? The answer has little to do with how polished or aesthetically balanced the performance is; it's based more on how intense and authentically human are the emotions evoked by it. Almost always, the people decide. They vote with their tears, their singing voices and their feet.

Recently, my synagogue was privileged to host the New York area debut of "Friday Night Live." Originated by the musician Craig Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe, this monthly service attracts upwards of 2,000, primarily young singles, at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. It was inspired in part by B’nai Jeshurun in New York, and although the two styles are quite different, through the use of beautiful, contemporary and sing-able music, the results are remarkably similar.

On a frigid Friday last month, Craig Taubman and his band galvanized a packed sanctuary of seekers. I imagined how my father, a hazzan of the previous generation, would have reacted, as Taubman walked among the congregants with his guitar, interspersing humorous anecdotes and warm commentary between the prayers. I decided that, traditional though my dad was, he would have smiled -- the same way he beamed with pride on the day I offered my "strange fire" sermon a quarter century ago. Taubman presented each melody not as a solo, but as an invitation; and all of us, from expert to novice, total strangers, swaying, repeating, closing eyes and holding hands, sang with a power that I have rarely seen in a synagogue.

Was it a show? Yes. But no one exited that service feeling emotionally cheated or manipulated. No one would rather have been at Lincoln Center. We connected at the deepest level. And when I spoke briefly that night on the need for young, wayward Jews to return home to Judaism, I felt at one with my message.

A few days later, I got a note from one young woman with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who that night attended a Shabbat service for the first time. "It was WONDERFUL," she wrote, "filled with God’s spirit. I felt right at home. I’M SO EXCITED!!!" In reaching out to Jews on the fringe, we touched at least one who had strayed far beyond it. Her letter alone was enough to convince me that this show must go on.

Craig Taubman will be "performing" Friday Night Live at the upcoming Rabbinical Assembly Convention. I urge my Conservative colleagues to listen closely to their own voices singing along. Orthodox Jews will recognize this revolution in the popularity of the Carlbach style of service, which like Taubman's and B.J.'s, is also now being exported to distant places. And Reform Jews need to heed Eric Yoffie's recent cry for liturgical reform.

There is a Darwinian aspect to this that we must understand. That which brings life to our worship will survive, and that which doesn't will not. The Germanic-Eastern European music that energized synagogue life for two centuries did its job well, but its day is done, except as it is being synthesized into contemporary forms. The psalms themselves are imploring us, "Shiru L'Adonai, Shir Hadash," "Sing unto Adonai a new song." The caravan has already moved on to other ways of making our ancient, sacred prayers come alive. Service attendance will continue to decline until we all understand that it's either good show -- or no-show.

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 Plague of Passivity

The Jewish Week 07/21/2006

Perhaps the key question of the 21st century concerns the dwindling margin for error we have in responding to the growing threats around us. When a single individual or group can combine a malignant ideology with deadly technology to destroy numerous lives in an instant, and not even the strongest nation on earth can stop them, people naturally become squeamish. No wonder auto racing has never been so popular. Each waking moment we all feel like we are behind a NASCAR wheel, continuously straddling the precipice separating life from death, constantly forced to make instant choices between too-hasty action and fatal inaction. Our response time has become razor thin.

In the face of extreme danger, intolerance infects us. Although I have issues with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and the House’s xenophobic plan for immigration reform I can understand the fear that gave rise to them. We are petrified that some kind of mythical midnight is about to strike, and that fear is forcing us to act even at the cost of some of our basic human rights. If we need to err, let us err on the side of survival. There is no time to seek compromise. All that matters is to act.

The dread of passivity crosses party lines. In his recent documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore employs a popular experiment to drive home his point that the human race is falling asleep at the environmental wheel. In this experiment, a frog placed into boiling water immediately jumps out, whereas a frog placed into cold water will not even flinch if the water is slowly heated to the boiling point. It will train itself to tolerate the discomfort of each incremental shift in temperature and eventually, this weakness will lead to the frog’s demise.

Bad news for the frog; worse news for us. In fact, I’ve read claims that, given their druthers, frogs would rather not be boiled alive. Humans are another story entirely. Gore’s point is that we have tolerated a rate of global warming that has increased exponentially over recent years. Last year was the hottest on record, and scientists now expect the world’s temperature to rise 2 to 4 degrees by 2100, much more at the polar icecaps. Oceans will soon rise precipitously, which will dramatically change the map of the world, and the administration has been fiddling while Nome burns. Gore sees literally no margin for error at this point. All that matters is that we act.
President Bush would say the same thing about Iran and North Korea.

Frogs are nearing the boiling point almost everywhere we look. As if to underscore the point, according to this month’s Science magazine, up to 122 amphibian species have become extinct since 1980. And nearly a third of the more than 5,000 species that remain are also considered threatened. In an atmosphere of pending environmental catastrophe, frogs have become the proverbial canary in the mineshaft.

Greenland is melting and North Korea is launching its calling cards into the Sea of Japan. Iran is nearly nuclear and is already test firing its missiles — at Israel, by way of Lebanon. Until now the world has been extremely tolerant of these provocations. In Israel, rockets on Sderot were tolerated, until they began raining down on Ashkelon, Nahariya, Safed, Haifa and Tiberias.

The biblical plague of frogs, as we recall, was only the second of the 10 inflicted upon the Egyptians and a seemingly innocuous one at that. Exodus (8:2) tells us that the second plague began with only one frog. But when that frog was not properly dispensed with soon enough swarms of frogs were everywhere. Long before “An Inconvenient Truth,” the frog was symbolic of the horrible consequences of inaction.

It’s rather fitting that the first surface-to-surface missile purchased for the North Korean arsenal was the FROG 5, delivered from the Soviet Union in 1969 and 1970. Then came the Scud, a plague inflicted upon Israel by Iraq during the Gulf War. Now we’ve gone beyond FROGS, Scuds, Katyushas and Kassams. If only the world had been able to stop things when we were just dealing with FROGS, we wouldn’t have gotten the Iranian Fajr-3s that are now being used against Haifa.

This proxy war featuring Hamas and Hezbollah is a test run for the real thing, when the ante could be raised considerably with the development of Iranian nuclear capacity. That’s why it is now time for Israel and the world to jump from the quickly warming water, before it comes to its nuclear boil. Just as Israel crippled the Iraqi threat at Osiris in 1981, so does it now have the chance to win another war that the world needs so desperately to win.

There are many legends about the plague of frogs, some touting the heroism of the frogs themselves. In fact, unlike Gore’s clueless amphibian, the frogs of the second plague took great pains to appear everywhere. They even jumped headfirst into blazing ovens and enmesh themselves in rising dough in order to ambush unwitting Egyptians cutting open their loaves of bread. These frogs were models for the proactive ethos this new century demands. But the frog also remains a reminder of the plague of passivity.

I’ve developed a bi-partisan bias toward preemptive action, whether the enemy is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Gore’s greenhouse gasses. The calendar is also helping to remind Jews as to the need to be proactive in the face of danger.

The three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av began this year, as if on cue, with the first strike on Haifa. Over the centuries, at times when the world seemed much larger and history moved more slowly, these three weeks have reminded Jews that the dreams of generations can go up in flames overnight. Now, in this hyped up, multi-tasking, 24/7, instant messaging, NASCAR era, “overnight” has just gotten a lot closer.

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.

The Anne Frank Rule

The Jewish Week 02/01/2008

In Shalom Auslander’s angry, narcissistic, yet shockingly brilliant memoir “Foreskin’s Lament,” he describes the horrible way his parents inflicted guilt as “going Holocaust” on him, as in “Do you know how many Jews died at the hands of the Nazis so you can keep kosher?” The Holocaust itself becomes a character in the narrative: “Mr. Holocaust,” he calls it, the bearer of eternal Jewish trauma. Auslander is numbed by the naked bodies in the newsreel footage he watches at school assemblies. He struggles with the horror even as he trivializes it, out-Rothing even Philip Roth in his cynical detachment.

Similarly, in the documentary “Kike Like Me,” recently broadcast on the Sundance channel, Jamie Kastner takes us on a sophomoric, self-indulgent road trip through the Jewish world, culminating with a visit to Auschwitz. It is an infuriating yet revealing window into the YouTube generation at its most cynical and most shallow. Borat meets Buchenwald. Kastner, like Auslander, is simply one lost young Jew trying to figure out how this big Holocaust piece fits into the rest of the puzzle known as Jewish identity. It’s a big piece, but it’s just another piece.

As we marked the 63rd anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation this week (Jan. 27), we approach an important threshold: The Holocaust has receded far enough into history to begin its assimilation into the larger Jewish story. This process is inevitable and for the most part beneficial. When we lose a loved one, the grief eventually gives way to “normalcy” — but not normalcy as it was before the person died. Instead, a new equilibrium forms, an altered worldview, in which the story of that departed relative becomes one with our own, imbuing our lives with added meaning.

The Holocaust is hardly typical, but it is noteworthy that prior tragedies in Jewish history eventually yielded rich new fruit. Seven decades after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews returning from Babylonian exile brought with them the seeds of a vibrant new form of Judaism. Out of the ashes of the Second Temple’s destruction emerged a radically new rabbinic ethic. And, following the traumatic expulsion from Spain in 1492, it took about two generations for those refugees to begin finding new kabbalistic answers to their gut-wrenching questions.

Historians will argue the fine points here, but what is irrefutable is that the Holocaust is becoming in some manner normalized, especially among Jews born long after the liberation. I sympathize greatly with the survivors forced to swallow the shocking fruits of this new normalcy. One shudders at how they must respond to Auslander’s insolent prose or David Deutch’s humor, as quoted in Heeb Magazine, including “jokes” like “So I guess you don’t think the Holocaust is funny. But I gotta tell you, it killed them back in Poland.”

And we thought that the greatest danger to the memory of the Holocaust came from the anti-Semitic deniers! I ask the survivors to have patience, somehow, and to recognize that out of this rudeness will emerge, eventually, renewal.

On the other hand, while this generational seismic shift is taking place, it is clear that boundaries are needed to protect the martyrs from the shockmeisters. Just as the ancient rabbis believed in building a “fence around the Torah” to safeguard the commandments, so must we build a “fence around Auschwitz” to protect the memory of the slain. In a culture that revels in free expression to the point of unruliness, we need to establish some basic rules.

In my house, we have the Anne Frank Rule.

One night during a recent school vacation, my family was engaged in a stimulating round of “Apples to Apples” — that popular game where a rotating judge picks a descriptive card (like “refreshing,” or “feh!”) and other contestants select cards that they hope the judge will consider the best possible match (like “Passover” and “Alan Dershowitz”). Naturally, we were playing the Jewish version.

I’ve found this game to be a very helpful tool in navigating through the complex choices of Jewish identity. Echoing the randomness of such choices, “Apples” effortlessly shuttles us from lox to Leviticus and from Moses to Jackie Mason; from the sublime to the ridiculous. This reflects the same randomness experienced by Auslander, Kastner and their contemporaries, as they shuffle various pieces of the Jewish identity puzzle through their psychological playlists.
This particular game was one of our all-timers. It came down to the final hand, with my two teenagers and I each having a chance to win. With the game on the line, we doubled the stakes and pulled out two descriptive cards: “odd” and “offensive.”

Ethan and Dan played “Crown Heights,” “my bedroom,” “J-Date” and “Dennis Prager.” I suppose any of those could have been the best match. But I held the trump card in my hand. You see, I had just drawn “Anne Frank.”We have a little rule in my family, one suggested to us by a close friend. Whoever plays the “Anne Frank” card automatically wins that hand. No questions asked. The idea is that it would be offensive to Anne’s memory, and by extension, all Holocaust victims, for Anne to lose to, say, “Joan Rivers” or “potato kugel.”

But here, the exact opposite would be occurring. Anne would win for matching “odd” and “offensive.” How could we shame her in this way?

I succumbed to that logic and pulled back the card. I lost the battle but won the war, as my family then engaged in a dialogue about how, just as Anne’s is no normal card, the Holocaust is not just any old piece of the Jewish identity puzzle.

This Golden Age of global free expression is busting boundaries and demolishing dictatorships everywhere. But in our yearning to infiltrate the Great Wall, let’s remember to preserve that fence around Auschwitz. As the Shoah recedes into history, let it never recede into normalcy.

Terezin and The Vision Thing

The Jewish Week 4/00

With another Bush now running for President, it s time once again for us to discuss "the vision thing." In truth, the Jewish community has never ceased talking about it, long after George the Elder suffered electoral demise after scoffing that ineffable and elusive quality we call "vision."

So what is vision, anyway?

It s that which allowed a Herzl to look at the squalor of Jewish life in Europe and see modern Maccabees building up a Jewish state; or Moses to see broken slaves and imagine a people proud and free. Jews were quixotic long before Quixote ever flailed against his first windmill. Without the most audacious imagination, we could never have survived in Exile. Yet vision is so lacking in Jewish life today.

Is it simply that we have been hammered down for so long that we no longer can bring ourselves to envision the light at the end of the tunnel? Or is that that we ve become so pessimistic that, even when we do see the light, we automatically assume that its source must be an oncoming train?

Part of the problem might be that things are too good. Because we live in a time of such extreme affluence, with a secure Jewish state in one pocket and a Papal apology in the other, we ve lost the ability to imagine the future getting any better. All we can do is suppose the opposite, a cataclysm that any card-carrying Jew feels must be inevitable when times are good. We feel like we re being set up by God for one of those Satanic Joban deals. I call it the "P tu P tu" theory of Jewish life. When things are good, all we can see is the evil eye lurking behind the bend. Every policeman becomes a Cossack, every crucifix a potential dagger, every extended hand a cynical ploy to catch us off guard.

Time and time again we ve been told that the specter of anti-Semitism will no longer motivate Jews to greater involvement, yet we continue to return to the Holocaust as our primary rallying cry. Sometimes I look at all the attention being paid to these dark shadows of our past and wish to cry out "Never Again!" as in, "Never again will I allow myself to say Gevalt in public and allow the my message to be succumb to such despair."

Then I went to Terezin, and I understood the true nature of vision.

Recently I was part of a group of thirty-plus rabbis, representing the full geographical and denominational spectrum of North American Jewry, who traveled to Prague in a trip coordinated by the North American Boards of Rabbis (NABOR). We journeyed there to fulfill a vision -- several visions, actually. We went to accept a genuine offer of reconciliation from Church and government leaders. We also went to demonstrate an authentic model for unity amidst diversity. Rabbis from the group offered a class to the Prague Jewish community the first ever in Eastern Europe taught by rabbis of three different denominations. And we went to pay respects to the victims of Terezin, the infamous concentration camp located an hour s drive from the Czech capital.

At the end of a long and emotional tour of the camp, the guide brought us to a site only recently discovered, a small synagogue hidden in the basement of a bakery. It was an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.

On the walls are Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, two of which absolutely floored me. One says, "Know before whom you stand," a verse found in synagogues everywhere, but one that took on a whole new meaning in that place; for on the other side of that wall stood the S.S. guards. They knew in their hearts that the One before whom they really stood was God, a sovereign whose very existence they certainly had every reason to doubt. In spite of it all, they believed.
And with belief comes vision. On the front wall of the synagogue is inscribed a verse from the Amida, "May our eyes be able to envision Your return to Zion in mercy."

Never again will I be able to recite the Amida without thinking of this holy place.

"Hazon" in Hebrew means "vision" and that word is embedded in the inscribed verse. Note that the prayer doesn t ask that the people themselves be whisked to Zion. The Jews of Terezin were not so quixotic as to imagine that they themselves would ever see the spectacular sunrise over Jerusalem. They didn t pray for their own return to Zion but for God s. Hidden away for a moment of sanity amidst the madness, these heroes had the audacity to pray that God and the Jewish people survive the Holocaust, even though they knew that they themselves most likely would not. They not only saw the light at the end of the darkest tunnel in human history, they shined it toward a distant future that no sane person could possibly have imagined, a future that certainly would not include them.

We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn t matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls. It suddenly didn t matter that there was no Mechitza separating the men from the woman or whether the language was gender-neutral. Nothing mattered but that we were Jews, praying together, the living fulfillment of their vision.

Then I read aloud two selections from that classic collection of children s poetry written in Terezin, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," and I felt like a pilgrim on the steps of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, reciting psalms. The poems were all about the joy of being alive.

If these residents of hell could find the vision to see butterflies and pray for God s renewal, how dare we allow ourselves to become mired in cynicism and negativity! The words of the prophets were written on these subterranean walls:

"May our eyes be able to envision."

And when I reach that verse of the Amida, never again will I dare to yawn.

Superabbi: The Flawed Model

New York Jewish Week: 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.