Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
In This Moment, January 6, 2022: Saying God, Playing God;The Greatest Zionist Environmentalist You've Never Heard of; The Hula Valley's Saddest Photo
In This Moment
On this anniversary of the Jan. 6 Insurrection, some links to thoughts I've shared on the topic over the past year, in particular last January, in the wake of the attack:
Join us for services on Friday night and Shabbat morning, all on Zoom. The portion is Bo. Last Friday as we rang in the New Year, I spoke about "The Plague of Excess." Watch the video here. And last Tuesday our Jewish Canon class had a stimulating conversation about whether Jews are becoming more motivated by inner meaning or outward commitment (self help vs peoplehood), as well as the changing demographics of intermarriage. See the video here.
Saying God, Playing God
A number of you received an annoying phishing email early this week, ostensibly (though not really) from me. As a public service, here is how to recognize and avoid falling victim to one of these scams. A telltale sign is that the return address on that email was unlike any email I've ever written to you. Another is that it didn't sound like something I would say. Here it is:
Leaving aside the British spelling of "favour" the stilted language and faulty grammar, one thing stood out. As a congregant put it at minyan the next day, the reason it didn't sound like me was the way it talked about God.
I think what she meant was that the flowery use of God sounded more formal, more affected and perhaps more Christian than you typically hear in Jewish circles.
But it raises important questions. Should we be talking about God more - or less? Does talking about God excessively actually cheapen what is supposed to be the Ultimate Mystery. If we talk of God as an outside entity, an "it," detached from our experience, isn't that a form of taking God's name in vain?
I can recall as a teen being uncomfortable watching ads where Cowboys' coach Tom Landry would speak of his "personal relationship with God." It's not just a Christian thing. Many traditional Jews also talk openly of their special bond with "the KBH" (Kadosh Baruch Hu. - The Holy One of Blessing) like He's a best bud (and always, for those who use that expression, God is a "He"); or "Hashem," as if this term, designed as a euphemism to shield us from getting too close to God's name, has itself become a nickname for an intimate, invisible friend.
I've long admitted to being an anti-Hashemite.
I'm not comfortable being overly comfortable with God. The term "Israel," after all, means to struggle with God. Struggle is my theological comfort zone. I'm most certain about my uncertainty.
I tend to avoid excessive "God talk," in part because my concept of God would render idolatrous any attempt to pigeonhole God into being a co-pilot, a football coach's personal trainer or a rebbe's best buddy.
Meanwhile, it is absolutely appropriate to speak of the spiritual practices of American Jews without focusing on God. As this article puts it, if you’re asking American Jews if they’re religious, you don’t understand American Jews. In her book, Beyond the Synagogue Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice, Rachel Gross argues that American Jews continue to find deep meaning in rituals, history, their families and communities. She states that nostalgic activities such as visiting the Museum at Eldridge Street or eating traditional Jewish foods should be understood as American Jewish religious practices. In making the case that these practices are not just cultural, but are actually religious, Gross asserts that many prominent sociologists and historians have mistakenly concluded that American Judaism is in decline, and she contends that they are looking in the wrong places for Jewish religious activity.
Sounds good to me, as long as there is plenty of rugelach on the men's side of the mechitzah at Zabars!
I may not talk about God all the time, but I play one on TV - i mean at TBE. This was a particularly difficult week in the pandemic, with the exponential spread of the Omicron variant. Within our congregation, it has been sweeping through entire families. I've spoken to lots of congregants this week and very few have been untouched by this wildfire, in one way or another. It is out of control, and while the symptoms are usually mild, the hospitals are filling up. People are worried. Every cough has become a trigger of existential dread.
So it was a perfect week for me to be blessed with about 20 home testing kits, as part of the state's effort to get the tests to the right people, using religious leaders as their eyes and ears on the ground. I did not hesitate to accept the offer - even before figuring out how best to distribute the kits. My goal was to get them out quickly, because they were doing no good in my car, and to aim to get them into the hands of those most vulnerable. That could mean those who were from vulnerable demographics, those experiencing symptoms - or both. With the disease now so extraordinary contagious, I wanted to be ahead of the curve, so those with immunity or mobility issues were a high priority, even if they were not symptomatic.
Because I had a limited supply, I was forced to make some uncomfortable decisions and turn some people away. It was a humbling week for me; while these tests do not in themselves determine "who shall live and who shall die," the results could change the course of people's lives - especially since each of these people could potentially infect other people (with Omicron, each infected person infects on average at least a half dozen others). I also heard a lot about people's non-Covid related sadness, the loneliness, helplessness and frustration that we are all feeling right now.
I was relieved to give away the last of the kits and hope they are all put to good use. I hope that soon the kits will be easily available to all of us - and that none of us will need them. I've had enough of playing God for one week.
But I'm always up for a conversation about God. The poem below is a good place to begin. Is accessing God a struggle, as I claim.... or is it actually the easiest thing imaginable, as this poem claims? Or both?
The Worst Thing We Ever Did
The worst thing we ever did was put God in the sky, out of reach.
Pulling the Divinity from the leaf,
Sifting out the Holy from our bones,
Insisting God isn’t bursting dazzlement through everything we’ve made
A hard commitment to see as ordinary
Stripping the sacred from everywhere to put in a cloud made elsewhere
Prying closeness from your heart.
The worst thing we ever did was take the dance and the song out of prayer.
Made it sit up straight and cross its legs,
Removing of it rejoicing,
Wiped clean its hip sway, its questions, its ecstatic yowl, its tears.
The worst thing we ever did is pretend God isn’t the easiest thing in this Universe.
Available to every soul in every breath.
The Greatest Zionist Environmentalist You've Never Heard of Died 100 Years Ago
Tu B'Shevat is on January 17. Since I'll be out of the office and there will be no Shabbat-O-Gram next week (if I try to send one out, shoot me), I want to pay tribute this week to a Zionist pioneer who died 100 years ago, who brought together two of the most important aspects of this holiday: a burning love for the land of Israel and a deep concern for our environment.
See below one of the saddest photos I've seen, taken from the front page of today's Ha'aretz. It shows a crane crashing to its death in Hula Lake in northern Israel. You can see today's story below it, along with a headline from last week about the Avian Flu that has devastated Israel.
It’s being called one of the worst blows to wildlife in Israel’s history. You might have read about it in the New York Times. There have been widespread infections on chicken and turkey farms and there is now a severe egg shortage - a shortfall of 15 million eggs. What’s more, 5,000 migratory cranes have died from it – and the north of Israel is one of the most important migration routes in the world. It's a catastrophe that mirrors our own pandemic, and there are no vaccines.
And we humans are responsible for this. It was avoidable. When the Hula Valley was drained in the early years of the state, migratory patterns were disrupted. The colossal error was reversed a number of years later, the lake was refilled with water, and the birds returned. But they began to feed on neighboring farms, so farmers and tourists conspired to feed the birds at lakeside to keep them away from the farms. Several tons a day of peanuts and corn were given to the birds. The cranes in turn generated nearly 40 million dollars in tourism every year. A nice arrangement.
And it continued, despite environmentalists’ warnings that this would disrupt the precious balance of the ecosystem. What crane would want to schlep back down to Africa in the winter when they were literally working for peanuts up here? They were getting all the food they could possibly want. So, many stayed put. And the park got crowded. Much like those overcrowded chicken farms in Israel and many other places. That’s what caused this plague. Pure excess. Pure greed. Birds were not meant to live sedentary lives. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. And they gotta fly south.
We have so messed up our relationship with nature.
A.D. Gordon believed that a return to the soil would transform the Jewish people and allow its rejuvenation. He was the quintessential labor zionist of the first pioneer generation, the group that drained the swamps and founded the first kibbutz (Degania) alongside Lake Kinneret, just south of the Hula Valley. He sought to promote physical labor and agriculture as a means of uplifting Jews spiritually. It was the experience of working the land, he believed, that linked the individual to the hidden aspects of nature and being, which, in turn were the source of vision, poetry, and the spiritual life. He also believed that working the land was a sacred task, not only for the individual but for the entire Jewish people. Agriculture would unite the people with the land and justify its continued existence there. In his words: "The Land of Israel is acquired through labor, not through fire and not through blood."
I am in awe of the eagle soaring at Dinali, depicted in the photo at the top of this email. But I am grieving for that crane as if it is family. I don't live in Israel, but I am a Jew, and I love that land (especially that incredibly beautiful valley) and the photo of that crane brings tears to my eyes. We have let that crane down - and 5,000 of his closest friends, who trusted that we would care for them.
People have either loved or hated the current film, "Don't Look Up," which warns obliquely of a coming climate apocalypse. But for me, among the most powerful visuals of the film are the images of unassuming animals sprinkled in randomly, creatures with no idea that they are about to meet their maker as a comet speeds toward earth. In the end (spoiler alert) not all the animals are so innocent and cuddly. But most are, and while the film might overdo it with this message, all they needed to do a live photoshoot of what is really happening at Lake Hula.
A.D. Gordon was right: If we desire life, we need to renew our relationship with nature.
Have a Shabbat Shalom, and, in advance, a Happy Tu B'Shevat!