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.
Thursday, May 18, 2023
In This Moment: Names and Numbers; Davening for Dummies; The Human Jerusalem; CSI Bamidbar
In This Moment
Mazal tov to Jackson Goichman, who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning. Our TBE family is delighted for him and his family. We also wish a hearty Mazal Tov to Sylvan Pomerantz, who will be celebrating a special Bar Mitzvah anniversary this Shabbat. We also wish Mazal Tov to our Kesher Beth El 7th graders (some of whom are photographed above), who graduated this week, and to all those who are moving up and moving on in their studies, wherever they may be.
Names and Numbers
This week's portion of Bamidbar contains something very rare in the Bible: a census. Jackson will discuss why that is the case in his d'var Torah tomorrow, but suffice to say that Judaism looks down on reducing human beings to numbers. When David did an unauthorized (and Satan-inspired, no less) census in 1 Chronicles 21, it was displeasing to God and led to a great calamity. But it's not like we never quantify. Jews have been creating ranking lists for centuries. In chapter five of tractate Avot alone, there are nine top 10 lists. And, in an interesting twist to what is typically (and often distastefully) done, here the rabbis rank their congregants. (So what type of learner are you? A sieve, a funnel, a sponge or a strainer?).
The ancient sages didn't find metrics inherently abhorrent; they were just wary of falling under their sway, which is so tempting, because math is so clean and real life is so messy. But we are the people who personally experienced the dehumanization of having our individuality reduced to tattooed digits on the arm. And now, with artificial intelligence threatening to shatter the final barriers distinguishing the real from the artificial, the vast complexity of humanness from a pile of 1's and 0's, it is worth heeding the biblical lesson that we should quantify people only when absolutely necessary.
I've always been attracted to the notion expressed most prevalently in Martin Buber's I and Thou (see the complete pdf here) that human beings must never be relegated to the world of things. It has been a lodestar of my personal philosophy, ever since I studied Buber's writings in college. The moment you reduce a person to a number (e.g "She's an '8'!" "He's a million dollar donor!" "They're a 4.0 student!"), the one whose value is reduced by this objectifying transaction - is you.
Today is Jerusalem Day.
As Haviv Rettig Gur writes in today's Times of Israel, we need to get back to Jerusalem's human story in celebrating its unification in 1967, rather than provocative and incendiary demonstrations of domination, as the annual flag parade through the Muslim Quarter has become. He writes, "The first Jerusalem Day (in '67) meant different things to different people. But at its core, it was for most Jewish Israelis a celebration of a sudden lifting of the great burden of fear, a discovery of one’s own power not yet sullied by the use of that power."
Sarah Tuttle Singer elaborates in this Facebook post:
Davening for Dummies
A hallmark of my approach has always been to see each individual as being on their own spiritual journey, going at their own pace. So prayer needed to become a welcoming, intimate, and personal experience. At services, I always wanted prayer to be accessible but while never watered down, authentic but never automatic. It needed to invite us in rather than cast us aside. That's a neat trick to pull off, given the language gap for so many. But through the creation of supplements and the acquisition of increasingly user-friendly prayer books, along with experimental service formats, we were able to pull it off. We even had a section of our website dedicated to increasing comfort level at morning minyan, called Minyan Mastery. Below is an article I wrote for Moment Magazinein 1996, the keynote for a favorite adult ed series here, Davening for Dummies:
Ever notice how dumb we've all become -- and how proud we are of it? Maybe it began with that famous internal memo of President Clinton's '92 campaign staff, "It's the economy, stupid," or maybe it's just that we've hit the point of overload in absorption of new technologies. Just as we figured out the microwave, along came the VCR; then the computer invaded the household; then we discovered that the rest of the world was having a great time in a strange place known as "on line." With each innovation, we know that we must conquer our techno-phobias or risk becoming social dinosaurs.
But at least we have company. Bookstore shelves are now filled with titles like "DOS for Dummies," "Finances for Dummies," even "Sex for Dummies," (and I thought some things still came instinctively). In the same spirit, I'm holding a seminar in my synagogue entitled, "Davening for Dummies." We the utterly incompetent have come gliding out of the closet, now liberated to admit our inadequacies, and it is comforting to know that everyone feels the same way.
The rest of the world is just now catching up to the Jewish people, because we have declared our ineptitude for centuries. Moses felt entirely unworthy of his weighty responsibilities, as, it seems, has every Jewish leader since him, at least until Bibi Netanyahu. Anyone who has ever set foot in a synagogue on Shabbat morning has, at some point in his life, sat next to Joe the Super-Davener and felt like a complete idiot. We're very good at encouraging self-inflicted degradation, only we are taught to call it humility.
This attitude prevails in my profession. Even the greatest of my seminary professors used to shrink at the mere mention of a sage of the previous generation; my classmates and I were expected to abase ourselves in a similar manner, at least in public. But one does not have to proclaim unworthiness in order to honor one's teachers; the Torah instructs us to rise before our elders, not to lie prostrate in their presence.
Rabbis dutifully pass down this insecurity to our own students. The little secret that our congregants don't know is that, while they are standing in front of us terrified that we heard them mispronounce "Yitgadal," we're shaking in our boots at the prospect of blowing the Bar Mitzvah boy's middle name or misquoting a talmudic aphorism and having our professors yell at us in our dreams.
It's not just about people: even our greatest city has an inferiority complex. With all the fuss about Jerusalem this year, we still pray for the restoration of its former glory, as if all of Teddy Kollek's efforts were mere window dressing. Even the grand Jerusalem of Temple times, which our sages claimed possessed nine tenths of the world's beauty, wasn't good enough. In rabbinic literature the earthly Jerusalem has a celestial counterpart, and it is the heavenly Jerusalem that God will inhabit first.
For us, this problem stems in part from the pervasive feeling that our parents were "more Jewish" than us, simply for their having lived one generation closer to the cultural milieu of the idealized "old country." But it is also traceable to that messianic itch that has denied Jews the chance ever to be totally satisfied with things as they are. Some would call this in-bred perfectionism healthy, better for the world if not for our own mental well-being. That itch has propelled us to great accomplishments (often to spite our demanding parents and teachers, rather than to please them), but it is also at the root of our alienation and an impetus for assimilation.
"Avinu Malkenu, remember that we are but dust," is the mantra we'll repeat so often during the upcoming High Holidays, that most ego-deflating of seasons. But we forget that the Torah instructs us not merely to love our neighbor, but to love ourselves as well. We neglect the other side of the equation: we're lowly, but for our sake the world was created.
Ironically, although we come out of the High Holidays thinking that Judaism is all gloom and doom, most of us actually feel very good about ourselves at the services, because those prayers are so familiar to us. It's the one time each year when everyone can be Joe the Super-Davener, with added relish, since the original Shabbat-variety Joe, now vastly outnumbered and self-conscious, shuckles (sways) timidly in his corner. If only we could feel so at home at services the other days of the year.
Which brings me back to "Davening for Dummies." Inadequacy loves company, and the Microsoft age has presented us with a "window" of opportunity. Yes, we're dummies, but so is everyone else, so we don't have to feel so bad about it. The key to stemming the tide of assimilation is not to dilute Judaism or reduce the level of Hebrew at our services, but rather to pump up self-esteem by diminishing the stigma associated with Jewish illiteracy. People grapple with foreign subject matter all the time, at museums or at the opera, and they come out inspired, humbled perhaps, but hungry for more. We've got to make sure that they come out of shul feeling equally uplifted, in spite of the gaps in their knowledge, else they spend the next Shabbat searching for God back at Lincoln Center.
A practical suggestion: I recommend that every rabbi intentionally blow it at some very visible time -- how about Rosh Hashanah -- and then admit the mistake, proudly. Not only will the experience emancipate the leader from his own fear of failure, it will make the congregation feel a hundred times better about itself -- and probably lead to an increase in service attendance and a contract extension. People struggle with machines all day; it's refreshing when they see a real human being on the pulpit.
As for the rest of us, when we look at Joe the Super-Davener sitting next to us, measure him not by the intensity of his shuckling, but rather by a more sophisticated tool, the mensch-o-meter. Does he help us find the page and not make us feel dumb in the process? Does he even say hello? When we forget to stand for Kedusha and he gives us that stare, remember that there's a good reason why he's shaking so much.
Let's just feel good about being Jewish. Let's wake up each morning, look in the mirror and say, "I can pray the way I want. I love my neighbor and I love myself. Gosh darn it, I'm a good Jew."
Join us tonight at 7 as our ongoing Introduction to Judaism series focuses on, you guessed it, prayer. I guarantee that no one will be shaking in their boots.
As a sneak preview for tonight's session, you can check out our study materials here and here. And below, see my Davenology 101 guide to exploring prayers in four dimensions, and at the bottom, a thematic outline of the Friday evening service and a glossary of prayer and synagogue terms.
Sunday's front page with the headline, "Noa, You Are Phenomenal," a take on Noa Kirel's third-place winning song, "Unicorn," The headline on the bottom indicates that a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza was being tested (and thus far it has held).
(So here are some numbers for you number crunchers!)No One Participates in Politics More than Atheists(Substack) The last forty years of politics and religion has been focused squarely on the ascendancy of the Religious Right. But I think that era of religion and politics is rapidly coming to a close. The Religious Right is no longer aprimarily religious movement - it’s one about cultural conservativism and nearly blind support for the GOP with few trappings of any real religiosity behind it. Here’s what I believe to be the emerging narrative of the next several decades: the rise of atheism and their unbelievably high level of political engagement in recent electoral politics. Let me put it plainly: atheists are the most politically active group in American politics today and the Democrats (and some Republicans) ignore them at their own peril.
Recounting the Census: A Military Force of 5,500 (not 603,550) Men (TheTorah) - We have witnessed a resurgence in attempts to interpret the census data from Numbers in a way that reduces their numbers significantly. Professor Joshua Berman, for instance, offered a suggestion along these lines in his recent Mosaic essay “Was there an Exodus?” The following piece by Ben Katz is part of this trend.
Miracles and Madness: Israel at 75 (D Gordis - The Free Press) - How did the Jewish people manage to pull this off after two in every three European Jews had been slaughtered? What does he consider Israel’s greatest achievement? Its greatest failure? In light of ongoing political turmoil, what does Gordis expect a 100th year to look like?
When Canines Were in the Land (Jewish Review of Books) - “If a Jew has a dog, either the dog is no dog or the Jew is no Jew.” With the possible exception of ultra-Orthodox Jews, this old proverb no longer holds, but it’s worth remembering that the reconciliation between Jews and dogs is relatively recent. There is a story to be told here, and Rudolphina Menzel, who was a great “canine pioneer,” both as a scientist and as a Zionist, is a large part of it.