Sunday, May 24, 2020

From the Rabbi's Bunker: May 24: Is it Time to Go Back? Have our Homes Become the New Wilderness?

From the Rabbi's Bunker

Memorial Day, 2020

The value of human life is infinite and beyond measure, so that any part of life - even if only an hour or a second - is of precisely the same worth as seventy years of it, just as any fraction of infinity, being indivisible, remains infinite.
Lord Jakobovits, former UK Chief Ra

Because we see ourselves as containing a spark of the divine, we understand that every person has infinite worth; therefore, no human being should be treated merely as an object, and we should always attempt to see the humanity in those we encounter. This attitude, drawn from Genesis 1:26, underlies many Jewish values.

A scene from yesterday's enjoyable Family Havdalah Click here to watch it 

And in other unprecedented news....


From the Forward

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world. In addition to the devastating loss and the economic recession that has already started to hit, there is the impact on our institutions, which will be huge. Which will prevail? What aspects of Jewish life will still be here in a post-pandemic world? How will corona change us? What will Jewish life look like when we are able to emerge from our homes and back into public life? We asked 29 thought leaders to think about how the pandemic would influence the part of Jewish life they are most invested in. Their answers took on topics like Jewish philanthropy, Jewish diversity, Jewish values, Jewish journalism, Jewish spirituality, and more in our collection "After Corona." It turns out, there's much to fear - and a lot to look forward to.

Enjoy these selected articles and check out the collection  here

Is it time to go back?

The conversation regarding when to reopen our houses of worship has regrettably taken a decidedly political turn.  That decision is infinitely complicated, but for us, the overriding factor, by far, is to protect lives. I concur with Michael Zimmerman, who, in his essay, "When to Pray Face-to-Face: Clergy, Using Science, Will Decide," wrote:

Houses of worship will be back. Churches, synagogues and mosques will reopen - but they will do so when it is safe - not when they are pressed to do so for partisan political benefit.
Who is able to determine when it is safe for people to gather to pray? Certainly not politicians. No, the only advice that is meaningful comes from the scientific community, from epidemiologists, from doctors, and from virologists.
The vast majority of religious leaders understands and respects the meaning of expertise. They look to those with knowledge for guidance on issues related to that expertise.
The 17,000 clergy members who comprise The Clergy Letter Project originally came together to celebrate the compatibility of religion and science, recognizing that each has something critically important to offer. They challenged the fact that scientific expertise was being cast aside by some in the name of religion, understanding that this was an affront to the principles of their faith while undermining the very nature of science.
In the face of a deadly pandemic, some politicians are attempting to use religion to advance their narrow special interests. These politicians are telling (perhaps demanding is a more appropriate word) clergy to open their houses of worship, to demonstrate that we've defeated the pandemic before us, despite the very clear warnings being offered by the scientific community that to do so is to risk increasing the toll of death and misery.
These politicians misunderstand virtually everything meaningful about religious belief.
They don't recognize that religion doesn't need a physical building or sanctuary to remain alive and thrive.
They don't recognize that religion is every bit as much about community as it is about physical closeness.
They don't recognize the strength that has been present as religious communities come together virtually to pray, to demonstrate compassion, to mourn, and to look to a better future.
They don't recognize that at the core of all religions is a deep belief in the well-being, both spiritually and physically, of all people.
They don't recognize that religion and science are not at odds with one another and that religious leaders can celebrate the knowledge science offers.
And they don't recognize that the vast majority of clergy do not see themselves as pawns in a manufactured culture war.
Note that I am a proud signatory of the Clergy Letter Project that he mentions.

I wish to get back to "normalcy" as much as anyone, But why now for houses of worship?  What exactly are we trying to prove?  Whose God are we trying to dare?  Where in our Bible does it say that machismo is a prime spiritual value?  

Zechariah said, "Not by might, not by power but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts."   Zechariah said nothing about returning prematurely to our pews as a prerequisite.  The spirit knows no physical space limitations.

I am appreciative of the way we have managed to adapt our spiritual offerings to the current predicament.  Judaism has always been supremely adaptable and we - of all faiths - know how important it is to be able to function beyond the walls of a single building.  We who have so often left our spiritual abodes - even our countries - at the drop of a hat, understand that deep communal ties can be forged even in a world without walls.  The three Abrahamic faiths are named for a guy whose first religious act was to "get out," to leave his homeland and wander to an unknown place.  We can take a few more weeks - or even months - of wandering in Zoomland and not only survive, but thrive.  

I can see why many businesses, or schools and camps, might be on a different return schedule.  But why us?  Even some evangelicals are questioning the wisdom of the presidential pronouncement.  Given how many houses of worship have turned out to be super spreader hot spots, because of spacing, poor ventilation, the particular dangers of singing, the number of frail and vulnerable in our midst, and simply our human desire to hug one another, why is the opening of our buildings suddenly deemed so "essential?"

When it comes to reopening, heaven can wait!

Has Home Become the New Wilderness?

Have our homes become the new Wilderness? Hopefully we won't be wandering in them for 40 years, but the comparison has validity, given how much aimless wandering we've been doing within our four walls.  But the Wilderness can also be a place of growth, and the time of wandering a time of reckoning - the recognition of those things we've taken for granted.  As we began this weekend the book of Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) and we begin today the month (and week) of the giving of the Torah - which was given in the Wilderness - it is the perfect time to take stock, of how far we've come, and how far we have to go.
They camped in the wilderness: Torah was given publicly and freely, in a place belonging to no one, and all who want to receive and accept it can come and do so. To three things the Torah is likened: to the desert, to fire, and to water. This is to tell you that just as these three things are free to all who come into the world, so also are the words of the Torah free to all who come into the world. -  Mechilta Shemot
As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote in Honey from the Rock, 

"The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety; a place that demands being present with all of yourself. 

In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.
Now you might say that the promise of such spirited awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. That such a way of being would be like breathing pure oxygen. We would live our lives in but a few hours and die of old age. As our ancestors complained, It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14.12).  And indeed, that is your choice." 
We are at home in the wilderness.  And if we leave our wilderness-homes too soon, we will end up back in Egypt, right back in that pre-Passover quarantine where we began.    
The Journey - Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Wishing you a good Memorial Day, from the Bunker 
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Saturday, May 23, 2020

What Comes Next for Denominational Judaism?

A conversation between Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Union for Reform Judaism), Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal (Rabbinical Assembly / United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), and Yehuda Kurtzer (Shalom Hartman Institute).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Video Zoom Services, Spring of 2020

April 22

May 1

May 15


May 22


May 23 Family Havdalah

From the Rabbi's Bunker: May 21: Praying for Monotony, Perspectives on Happiness and Gratitude; Jerusalem Day

From the Rabbi's Bunker
& Shabbat-O-Gram

Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously
Thank you to the Jewish Historical Society for hosting my book talk and launching of "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously."  Listen to the talk, and order the book here  (it is currently out of stock on Amazon, but returning soon!). See a review from Reform Judaism below...


Shabbat Shalom from the Bunker - and Happy Jerusalem Day!

16th century German map depicting Jerusalem as the center of the world

I'm looking forward to joining with Cantor Katie and Jami Fener for our pre-havdalah program on Sat. evening at 6:30.  I'll be reading the book in the photo above, and I can't wait to see how it turns out!  Join Beth Styles and me this evening at 6 for Kabbalat Shabbat, and tomorrow morning I'll be leading services from back in the sanctuary once again, by popular demand. See the Torah reading and commentary from our Humash for Parashat Bamidbar and Shabbat Machar Hodesh here.  On Sunday, which is Rosh Hodesh for the new month of Sivan - we will have a mincha (afternoon) service at 1, as our weekly "Healing and Hangout" is transitioning to a pure afternoon service, the same as we currently have on Mon-Fri.

Praying for Monotony


Even as our state is inching toward "opening up" in some sectors, this eternal Groundhog Day continues to repeat itself day after day, week after week - and that's if we are lucky.  In a sense, we are praying for monotony, hoping to wake up the next day feeling exactly the same as we felt the day before, wishing for as little drama to enter our lives as possible.  

As a religious institution, one might facetiously say that we have an advantage in preparing people for a time like this.  We are experts at monotony!  Just look at our services! :)  Same prayers, every week, and in some cases, every day, and in some cases, multiple times a day. That has often been the critique of our more traditional services, especially, such as Shabbat morning's. But last week we saw that people really had missed that monotony.  They "flocked" to our Zoom room as I returned to the sanctuary, and when I took out the Torah, people were visibly moved.  I know I was.  It was like being reunited with an old friend. Somehow, the rhythm that has anchored my entire life, which had been ruptured by Covid-29, was being restored.

I saw some received advice from a church in Illinois.

It can start to feel like we're stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the return of "real" life. A tiredness creeps in. We slowly start to slip away from normal habits. However, as unreal as the current reality feels, we need to remember that this is real life, and each moment has meaning.
For over 1500 years, in monasteries around the world, monks and nuns have taken vows to essentially live their whole lives in quarantine. They live, work, eat, pray, and sleep within the same walls their whole life. How do they stay sane? They follow a routine of prayer, work, and communal time that serves as the backbone of their life. They strive to stay present with God in the moment, offering up even the smallest tasks and frustrations to God out of love.
As we continue the long vigil, waiting for the day we can celebrate together again as a community, we should each ask ourselves: what is a simple sacred ritual I can take up every day and offer to God out of love? What can we do to stay awake and remain present with Him in the moment without worry about the future?
Keep it simple, remain faithful, and stay awake.

Sounds like good advice.  Let your life hum to the rhythm of daily ritual - whether it involves exercise, yoga, reading or - pray tell - prayer.  Find what grounds you. In Judaism, there are lots of options available.  Life is only monotonous if we allow it to be.

Boredom is just a state of mind.

Some More Memorial Day Holiday Weekend Reading & Listening

BONDS OF LIFE - Stories memorializing some Jews who have died during the Covid-19 crisis.

Rabbi Gittelsohn's Iwo Jima Sermon  - A rabbi's eulogy for World War II heroes became famous after a bigoted attempt to ban it.

Poems about Loneliness and Solitude (Poetry Foundation) Poetry offers solace for the lonely and a positive perspective on being alone).

"What Comes Next?" A podcast conversation between Rick Jacobs (Union for Reform Judaism), Jacob Blumenthal (Rabbinical Assembly / United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), and Yehuda Kurtzer (Shalom Hartman Institute).

Two Exciting Zoom Learning Opportunities...

We are partnering in an exciting coast to coast All Night study session with the Rabbinical Assembly. Check out the list of congregations hereView the full schedule for the night here. Also see a library of pre-recorded sessions and study guides available for use anytime to prepare for and observe Shavuot. 

And on Wednesday, May 27, the Stamford Board of Rabbis will be leading a series of pre-Shavuot seminars (a "Pre-kun"). Mine is at noon.


Perspectives on Happiness and Gratitude

Thank you to Dr Kareem Adeeb for sharing this with me
Days of Gratitude - Disruption. Social distancing. Loss, and grief. The morning that we woke up to today is not the same one we did even a month ago.

And yet there is (somewhere, sometimes) what to be grateful for: technology that keeps us connected, doctors on the front lines, educators supporting our children, friends telling us they see us, food that nourishes us, the natural world around us,
our inner strength and beliefs. 
We start our day with it. Modeh Ani. Thank you. This is Jewish wisdom at its best.  Days of Gratitude is an invitation to partake in an international, week-long, daily expression of gratitude. From May 22-30, culminating on the Festival of Shavuot, this website will be updated daily and will feature a rotating menu of activities and prompts designed to help you and those around you share gratitude. You can do this on your own, among family and friends, within communities and organizations, and across the broader, global community. Each day we will focus our gratitude on a different question and explore ways to express it.

Should we pray for happiness? On the face it, of course we should. Who doesn't want to be happy?
But something about word "happiness" strikes Jews in the wrong way. There's the old joke about the Jewish telegram: "Start worrying...details to follow." Our default is often guilt rather than happiness. It is as if we have been programmed to see anxiety around every corner, to be more comfortable in the familiar "oy" over the risky "joy."
Happiness is also an odd English word. It comes from the Middle English 
hap, as in happenstance and haphazard. This origin suggests that a happy life is a result of randomness and luck. Prayer has nothing to do with it.
In our consumerist culture, happiness is also frequently confused with pleasure, and praying for pleasure can feel self-indulgent. But happiness and pleasure are different.
Pleasure is short-term, like getting a massage or eating a sumptuous meal. Happiness is long-lasting. It is flourishing, which is a word preferred by the founder of the scientific study of happiness, Professor Martin Seligman. According to Seligman, flourishing contains five key components: positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishment. An easy way to remember them is the acronym PERMA.
The Jewish happiness prayer, as we will see below, promotes flourishing. It is the happiness experienced through a life of meaning and purpose.
What is the happiness prayer? It is a series of verses from the Mishna we recite as part of the morning worship service. It is found in many prayer books as part of the traditional series of morning blessings.  Here it is:
I have translated as follows:
These are the deeds with infinite benefits.
A person enjoys their fruit in this world,
and in the world to come. Guide me in embracing these sacred practices:
Honor those who gave me life
Practice kindness
Learn Constantly
Invite others into my home
Be there when others need me
Celebrate life's sacred moments
Support others during times of loss
Pray with intention
Forgive those who hurt me and seek forgiveness where I have others
Commit to constant growth.
This translation is not literal. For a few of the practices, I chose to convey the value expressed in the specific practice itself. For example, the Hebrew phrase that literally means "provide for a bride" I have rendered as "celebrating life's sacred moments." Providing for a bride reflects the importance of marking sacred moments with ritual, and these moments are not limited to weddings. Today they include anniversaries, baby namings, even graduations. Finding ways to participate in and create communal celebrations around those life events makes us happier.
The academic discipline of positive psychology has reinforced the message of the happiness prayer. Indeed, even though the rabbis who wrote this prayer were not familiar with positive psychology, their teachings intuit it. The actions this prayer calls upon us to take fit squarely within the PERMA framework noted earlier.
For example, celebrating life's sacred moments incorporates positive emotions, relationships, and meaning. Praying with intention is a act of engagement, and prayer itself encompasses a worldview that life has meaning. Knowing how to pray - the words, the rhythm, the melodies - gives us a feeling of accomplishment. When we look at the Eilu Devarim prayer as a guide to happiness, we can see each of its practices as an expression of some aspect of PERMA.
Saying the prayer also promotes happiness in other ways. First, it pushes us outside of ourselves. Almost all of the ten practices involve other people. Inviting others into our lives, practicing kindness, and comforting mourners, are just the most direct examples. The rabbis understood the seeming paradox that focusing on others more than ourselves makes us happier. As Victor Frankl put, "the door to happiness opens outward."
Frankl's observation helps us see a second source of happiness in this prayer. It roots us in a religious worldview. Its opening verses remind us that we are reading more than a list of good deeds. They are a series of practices that echo through eternity. We feel their effects in this world and in the world to come.
Put differently, embracing a religious worldview makes us happier. We can speculate on why this is true. But I suspect part of the reason is that faith is a mindset that pushes us - in some cases, even obliges us - to do things that may not feel great in the short term, but that enhance our lives in the long term. These are the things we do that we can look back on a year later and feel happy to have done.
Every year, I fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. To do so is a commandment found in the Torah and has been a Jewish tradition for more than 4,000 years. Since I am working all day - delivering sermons and leading my congregation in eight hours of prayer - fasting is the last thing I want to do. Yet it enhances my experience of the day and my connection to others. It does not feel pleasurable in the moment. But when I look back, I know I experienced the power of the day.
This is the kind of commitment faith has always nurtured, and ignoring the role of faith in the search for happiness is like going to search for a treasure and throwing away an old map leading directly to it. The Eilu Devarim prayer is such a map. May it guide us on our journey.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. He is the author of the "The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today."

Book Review: Embracing Auschwitz
I have a cynical friend who claims that there have been more books written about the Holocaust than there were people who perished in it. That is, no doubt, an exaggeration, but it is true that most of the books on this subject sound very much alike. Joshua Hammerman's Embracing Auschwitz (Ben Yehuda Press) deserves our attention because it is by far the most original book on this subject that has come along in a great many years.
It acknowledges right up front that this was the darkest time in all of human history, but it affirms that this generation can achieve new visions of faith and strength - and even joy - out of a confrontation with it. And I don't know of anyone who has said anything like that before.
He tells what he learned the first time that he was on a bus with a group of teenagers on the way to the hell-on-earth that was Auschwitz. He expected them to be feeling an overwhelming sense of dread, but when he looked around, he saw that these kids were trading their school pins and their sweatshirts and displaying an astonishing amount of teenage hormones... and he realized that they were the ultimate repudiation of the Nazis' intentions.
Right there, right on the way to the center of the valley of the shadow of death, these kids were expressing the excitement of life, and they were thereby demonstrating that the Final Solution was not so final after all.
And it is here that Hammerman offers his boldest idea, an idea that offends us when we first hear it, an idea to which our first reaction is that this is something that goes beyond the boundary of what a Jew can say. He proposes that there are now two Torahs that we must learn how to live with: the Torah of Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz, and that each has validity, and each has lessons to teach us.
A Torah of Auschwitz? Is that phrase not the ultimate oxymoron? Surely, we can take pride and give honor to those who wrote poetry and composed songs even in the bowels of Hell without using a phrase like this one.
Surely we can stand in awe of those who shared their scraps of food, and those who held seders in secret, and those who escaped by crawling through sewers, and those who somehow preserved a bit of their humanity in that most inhuman of all places, without calling that world a place of Torah.
How can we talk of a Torah of Auschwitz? Is not such a phrase a desecration and a perversion of the whole Jewish tradition, which stands on the Torah of Sinai?
And yet, Hammerman declares that our perception of God, of ourselves, and of our purpose in the world will be transformed when we begin to see them through the prism of Auschwitz. The Torah of Sinai has not been abrogated, but we will understand it differently in confrontation with one that is sometimes much harsher and sometimes much gentler: the Torah of Auschwitz.
The rest of this book is a description of some of the ways in which these two Torahs differ and yet are intertwined. Hammerman tells us how he and his traveling companions found once-abandoned synagogues all over Eastern Europe now rebuilt with the names of every single person in their community who was killed by their Nazis inscribed upon their walls.
In some cemeteries, they found tombstones that had been overturned and desecrated with swastikas, but in others they saw tombstones that have been restored and repaired so that the names that are inscribed on them will not be lost.
They remembered the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who said that he envied those who were fortunate enough to have graves instead of just being thrown into rivers or into ditches. And he envied even more those that had sunflowers planted on their graves, because the sunflower is known in European folklore as the flower that remembers.
Hammerman recounts that the young people on this trip came away from this experience with the determination to be sunflowers to the next generation. He says that when you listen to a witness, you become a witness. 
And so these young people resolved that when they came to Yad Vashem they would look up the names of these people in the archives, so that, when they got home, they could tell their congregations the stories of their lives, and not just their deaths.
Hammerman finishes this account of all the different collections of names that they saw wherever they went with this turnabout on one of the mitzvahs that is found in the Torah of Sinai. When they came to Berlin, they saw bricks on the sidewalks that you could stumble over, and therefore could not help but notice. These bricks are called stolpersteine, which literally means, "stumbling stones." Each one is inscribed with the name of the person who once lived here, who was taken away to his death from here, a name that must not be forgotten.
The Torah of Sinai says that you must not put a stumbling block before the blind, for if you do, you may cause him to fall. The Torah of Auschwitz says the very opposite: that stumbling blocks make people look down and see the names of those whose names they would rather not see.
The Torah of Auschwitz says that you must put a stumbling block before those who want to pretend they are blind so that they will have to come to terms with what happened here. And then it goes one step further, saying that it is a mitzvah to put a stumbling block before those who want to pretend that they are blind to suffering - not only then and there but here and now as well.
You will not be the same after you have read this disturbing book. It will force you to see God as the One who was with us in Auschwitz, who suffers with us, and who needs us.
Brace yourself to read a book that is sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and often inspiring. Brace yourself so that you can acquire a whole new perspective on who we are and what our purpose is. Brace yourself, even though you will put this book down many times along the way and wish that it were wrong. Brace yourself because you will learn that we are all survivors and that perhaps God is too.

Shalom from the Bunker,

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman