Musings on 2016/2017

Hi Ed,

The secular new year is upon us. 2016 has been a difficult year in so many ways—

We lost Elie Weisel, conscience of the world. We lost Leonard Cohen, poet of the world. Ari Shavit, long a respected liberal Israeli spokesman, resigns over sexual harassment suits he does not deny.

In June, 49 people are murdered in a gay nightclub.

On November 8, Donald Trump is elected, and while he has enjoyed warm relations with pro-Israel activists, many American Jews expressed concern over antisemitic undertones that surrounded his campaign; similar criticism accompanied his appointment of chief strategist Steve Bannon. That same month fires in northern Israel decimate the forest again.

And just now, on December 23, the Obama administration abstains from a vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction beyond the 1967 lines, rather than exercising its veto power to block the resolution. Immediately, the Netanyahu government defies the UN and prepare to build more settlements.

Any good news? The same month as the Pulse nightclub shooting, the United States votes to erect its first LGBTQ monument, The Stonewall National Monument, on the sites of the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City. On December 1st Ontario became the first province to reject the BDS campaign against Israel. Bernie Sanders was the first Jew to come that close to a presidential nomination. In May the first Muslim mayor of a major city is elected in London, and one of his first official acts is to attend a Holocaust Memorial event. And, to put it simply, you and I are still here, still preaching and teaching to Jews who still care about being Jewish.

How do we face such trying times, Ed? How do you suggest to your congregants to face the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty that 2017 now presents?

Elyse,

One advantage of being Jewish at a time like this is that we have long experience in facing trying times. So while 2016 did present some very difficult moments, and while there is legitimate trepidation going forward, there are resources from our tradition to draw on at times of heightened anxiety. I personally derive faith and courage from three important Jewish strategies:

  1. Remembering that it could be “woyse.” Even in the midst of all the losses of 2016, we need to keep perspective.  A glance back at Jewish history presents many examples of eras, some quite recent, when we were much more vulnerable than we are at present. And not just us. Many other groups have experienced genocide and oppression on a far worse scale than they are now. That they are able to articulate their pain over the gaps between where they are in society at present, and the full equality they seek and deserve, in a certain sense reflects the enormous progress they have made.
  2. Remembering that it could be better. Jewish tradition teaches us never to take our eye off the prize, to always remember our commitment to and responsibility for creating a better world. That means we can’t give in to despair. Whoever is president, whatever policies Israel is pursuing, whichever direction the world is going on combatting climate change, however much suffering is happening in Syria and other battle zones in the world, we have to continue to find the energy to advocate on behalf of the principles we believe in. It is forbidden for us to give up, and that very knowledge can help us face whatever is coming.
  3. Remembering that we’re not alone. In so many ways, the world at this time is struggling with defining community. Community is utterly essential, and also really really hard. We gravitate to people of like mind, people of similar heritage or experience, and we derive comfort from their presence and support when we’re feeling beleaguered or worried. But sometimes we find that our communities aren’t as united as we’d imagined. And sometimes our communities isolate us from others who are different. I think that while we sometimes drive each other crazy, Jewish community at its best sets up a good balance. The notion of Klal Yisrael is precious as long as it isn’t deployed to utterly invalidate diversity. And God is also understood in our faith as always being there for us when times are tough.

These are some Jewish beliefs that I draw on to help myself and others face difficult times. How about you?

Ed

Ed,

Thanks for this helpful perspective. I think the operative words here are fear and hope.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” continues with his definition of fear: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While fear of ISIS, and fear of terrorism may feel justified, many of our perceived personal threats are misguided. In his book Beyond Fear, Bruce Shneir writes: “People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks, and downplay common risks. They worry more about earthquakes than they do about slipping on the bathroom floor, even though the latter kills far more people than the former. Similarly, terrorism causes far more anxiety than common street crime, even though the latter claims many more lives.” My mother in law’s wisdom on this is: 3/4 of the things you worry about never happen, and 3/4 of the things you don’t worry about do happen. So, even though you’re worrying the right amount, you’re worrying entirely about the wrong things.

A climate of fear, encouraging people to fear each other and fear their relationships and fear their lives, is not an environment any of us can flourish in. So despite all the rhetoric and all the real dangers we face in 2017, I will continue to choose hope.

The national anthem of Israel is HaTikvah—the hope, not HaPachad, the fear. The word tikvah comes from kav—a narrow line, a thin thread. We always have to see even the thinnest thread of hope as Jews—hope tempered with reality.

But how do we have hope that does not make us blind, putting our heads in the ground and ignoring what is happening in Aleppo, or in our environment, or in Jerusalem, or in Washington? The kind of hope to gives us the vision to not be paralyzed into inaction?

Elyse

Elyse,

Everybody has to find their own balance point. Sometimes we have to work hard to overcome our natural tendency to fear, and sometimes we just have to accept that fear in ourselves. Terrorism for sure causes an irrational amount of anxiety, but knowing it’s irrational doesn’t make it go away. When I lived in Israel during the second intifada, I felt fear riding the buses. I knew in my head that there was much more chance of my being involved in an ordinary car accident than being blown up in a bus, but still the latter prospect filled me with more terror. And yet ride the buses I did, as did most everyone in Israel at the time. I felt the fear but didn’t let it shape my actions.

After the recent American elections, I and many other people I knew fell into a state of despair. I knew that passivity and inaction could not be a proper response to this result, but that’s where I was for at least several days following – and I couldn’t just wish my way out of it. In some ways, I’m still there. But in other ways I’ve come out of it — partly as a result of the passage of time, and partly as a result of my professional need to find the strength inside myself to help others who are feeling fear at this time. Depending on the policies followed by the new administration, I will be looking for ways to get involved and make my voice heard – whether my actions as an individual make an actual difference or not. That’s the way I challenge myself to hang on to the kav of  tikvah when the pachad feels so weighty.

Wishing you and yours and our world a 2017 filled with hope and promise.

Ed

So long Marianne…and Leonard

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

I remember bumping into you at a Leonard Cohen concert in Hamilton years ago. We were two expat New York Jews who had become fans of the Montreal poet and singer who had gone expat the other way, but still clearly retained his affection for Canada. I thought this month, given his recent passing, we might share Leonard Cohen lyrics that have particularly touched us. Cohen’s music is so powerful that it can sometimes overwhelm the poetry of his lyrics, and I find it inspiring therefore to sometimes read the words without the music because they are often so compelling on their own.

His song “The Story of Isaac” is a midrash on the Akedah. Even the title reflects Cohen’s slant, as the narrative in Genesis seems to be much more about Abraham than Isaac. Here’s Cohen’s take (first stanza): The door it opened slowly/my father he came in/I was nine years old./And he stood so tall above me/his blue eyes they were shining/and his voice was very cold./He said, “I’ve had a vision and you know I’m strong and holy/I must do what I’ve been told.”/ So he started up the mountain/I was running, he was walking/and his axe was made of gold./Well, the trees they got much smaller/the lake a lady’s mirror/we stopped to drink some wine./Then he threw the bottle over./Broke a minute later/and he put his hand on mine./Thought I saw an eagle but it might have been a vulture/I never could decide./Then my father built an altar/he looked once behind his shoulder/he knew I would not hide.

There are several things to note about the way in which Leonard Cohen imagined Akedat Yitzhak in this song. First, Genesis doesn’t tell us how old Isaac was – but for Cohen, focused as he is on Isaac’s experience, it’s important that he be old enough to understand what is happening, and even take part in it on some level (“not hide”) — yet still a child whose father towered above him. Second, I was struck by the image of the two of them drinking wine on the way up the mountain. Is Cohen implying a certain surprising camaraderie in the relationship between the father and the son who have embarked on this awful errand? If so, what can that mean in the context of a story of a son who is about to be sacrificed by his father? Finally, when Isaac saw the bird and wasn’t sure if it was an eagle or a vulture – I wonder whether that question is actually about his father. Was Abraham in Isaac’s eyes a noble, holy man (an eagle) or a menacing, malevolent man (a vulture)? Perhaps both?

What do you see in this song? What’s your favourite Leonard Cohen lyric?

Ed

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Hi Ed,

First I’ve ever heard of this song. But I see in it Cohen’s strong attachment to the notion of family and his equally strong critique of a God who would compromise that family. Perhaps the vulture is actually God.

The song that most touches me is his Who By Fire. A riff on the Unetaneh Tokef, he plays with our emotions at that very tense time of year: we are sitting in shul wondering who will live and who will die, and he sings: And who shall I say is calling? Is he asking is God is really judging us to death, or are we judging ourselves to death—by drugs, by unrequited love, by power? Is he wondering if we are really “present” at the Unetaneh Tokef, making it real and relevant for ourselves through his poetic imagery—Who in the sunshine, who in the night time, Who by high ordeal, who by common trial, Who in your merry merry month of may, Who by very slow decay—but we too are thinking these things. I imagine Cohen sitting in his Montreal Orthodox shul hearing the traditional Unetaneh Tokef and composing these lines as a midrash. We read that poem at City Shul on Yom Kippur morning and it never fails to inspire.

And then there was his last song-You Want It Darker. Doesn’t get more Jewish. He wrote his own Kaddish, didn’t he? But here again he questions that human-Divine “partnership” that you and I as Rabbis feel is integral to Judaism.

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame You want it darker We kill the flame.

Why would God want it darker? Are we doing God a “favour” by killing the flame, or are we misunderstanding that God might actually want it darker? I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim he says. Is that his interpretation or does he really believe God gives us that permission? Or is that the price of free will?

This was his last song. Did he write it to “explain” his theology, or to critique ours?

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

Listening to “You Want it Darker”, and hearing him say “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord”, I can’t help but feel both sadness over the passing of this great man and also gratitude that when the time came, he felt ready. At the end of life, that feeling is perhaps more important than any theology.

Although he doesn’t use the word Hineni in his song “The Story of Isaac”, the word that would feature so prominently in his last song does appear in the Akedah narrative – twice. It captures Abraham’s willingness to carry out the sacrifice of his son, but it also expresses his readiness to hear the message of the angel that he should cease and desist. In the second stanza of Cohen’s song, he makes it clear which message he’s listening for: You who build these altars now/to sacrifice these children/you must not do it anymore…/You who stand above them now/your hatchets blunt and bloody/you were not there before/when I lay upon a mountain/and my father’s hand was trembling/with the beauty of the word.

This is poetry, not theology. Still, I like to think that “the beauty of the word” is a reference not to the original command but rather to the words spoken by the angel telling him Abraham not to sacrifice his son, and the trembling are the tremors of joy and relief that the father felt. Certainly, however we read the message of the Akedah, we in our time “must not do it anymore”. Cohen knew that plenty of children still get sacrificed in our world; he was never one to shun the dark side of human nature or human experience in his poetry or music. Not everything in life, or in Judaism, is good and sweet. For that reason, many people become disillusioned with and disengaged from our tradition. In Leonard Cohen, I hear a fierce and admirable engagement with Jewish tradition in this song, and in Who by Fire and You Want it Darker – all modern midrashim which can enrich our own experience of the tradition we’ve inherited.

Ed

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Ed,

Cohen’s death came at a very tense time in our year. The US election has put some of us on edge, especially as Jews. We wait with baited breath to see if anti-Semitism will get worse and worse as its already reared its ugly head in our direction. And then, our Canadian poet and troubadour, whom we always trusted to make us feel better, left us. But at the same time he always made us think harder, dig deeper, ask more. His Jewish identity was complicated and multi-layered. Because of that, I think he understood ours, and our struggles to live as modern people in a world so in need of the kind of healing that religion brings. Cohen never once disavowed his Judaism although he not only flirted with other religions he also was an ordained Buddhist monk. His Judaism was an anchor for him, I think, and he saw himself till the very end as a continuation of that long and ancient chain.

Thats why when he died I immediately turned to the poem he read at Irving Layton’s funeral, and not to his last Hinieni in You Want It Darker. In the poem’s words I think Cohen left us his heartfelt belief that no Jew will ever be the last Jew. No Jew is ever lost—not him, even in a Buddhist monastery, and not us liberal, unrecognizable -to-out-ancestors modern Jews. And yet, he also leaves us the “real” Jewish question he asked all his life: what would you do if you were the last Jew standing? Would you “gather…to quarrel deliciously and debate the sound of the ineffable Name.”?

Layton, when we dance our freilach

under the ghostly handkerchief,

the miracle rabbis of Prague and Vilna

resume their sawdust thrones,

and angels and men, asleep so long

in the cold palaces of disbelief,

gather…

to quarrel deliciously and debate

the sound of the ineffable Name.

Layton, my friend Lazarovitch,

no Jew was ever lost

while we two dance joyously

in this French province,

cold and oceans west of the temple.

I say no Jew was ever lost

while we weave and billow the handkerchief

into a burning cloud,

measuring all of heaven

with our stitching thumbs.

(“Last Dance at the Four Penny,” The Spice-Box of Earth)

“The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Yontiff”

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Ed,

Yikes. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and in the midst of it all, no matter what else—Shabbat. What’s a Rabbi to do?

Seriously, all those holidays, one after the other, make being Jewish an all-consuming experience, one that most liberal, non-Orthodox Jews are not used to. We eat, think, walk, dress Jewish for almost a full month. There’s alot of sitting in shul. And there’s alot of family, meals, talking and thinking about Big Ideas; missing work and school and for some folks more than a touch of loneliness for out of town kids, or loved ones passed away. Yizkor with all its beauty also demands of us a remembering that is intense. The whole month is one of raw emotion, I think. I suppose its alot like Christmas is for non-Jews, in a way. So much hype, so much build up, expecting and hoping for the perfect weather, the perfect service, the perfect family gatherings. Then the inevitable disappointment.

And then comes Heshvan: no holidays. Chanukah is not in sight yet. The days get longer, colder, and darker. From huge communal gatherings we get our smaller “regulars” attendance. Even Bar and Bat Mitzvahs taper off. So how do we keep up the positive energy, Ed? How do we keep up the “ruach”—the awesome spirit—that we both created over the Days of Awe?

My question to you is: should we offer more “gimmicks” in the long rest between High Holidays and Chanukah—theme Shabbats, rock n’roll bands at services, meditation/yoga Shabbat—to get people out and to feel that “high” again? Or should we let it be just what it is, more intimate plain ‘ole Shabbat services, with Shabbat itself as the only “come on”?

Elyse

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

Over my years in the rabbinate, I’ve often reflected on the fact that for me personally Yom Kippur is not a day when I can truly feel the important spiritual lesson of humility. That’s what the holiday is supposed to be about, but…all those people who come out, all listening attentively to me! And so many of them saying nice things about the sermons, about the services — it really is a high. In that environment, it’s very hard for me to feel or cultivate the attribute of humility.

No, for me, the month that teaches humility is not Tishrei but Heshvan. That’s when I realize that for all the nice things folks say about the holidays, and I do believe they’re sincere, in the end very few people actually change their Jewish lives in response to a service or a sermon, no matter how inspiring or powerful. The people who made shul a regular part of their lives before the chagim are generally the same people who continue to make shul a regular part of their lives around the year. And the rest return to their regular lives as well. That is humbling for me as a rabbi and as a person.

You ask how we keep up the ruach of the Yamim Noraim during the rest of the year. I don’t think that should be the goal. The year has its rhythm — the Yamim Noraim has its ruach, and so does the rest of the year. A regular Shabbat, with the wonderful regulars who keep our communities going around the year – that has its very special ruach as well.

I have long resisted using “gimmicks” to get more people to come out, although I know they sometimes work. What I’m looking to build up in my rabbinate is the year-round community of people who look at their calendars, see that it’s Friday night or Saturday, and decide that because it’s Shabbat, where they should be is in shul. Those who do so become an extended family who look forward to seeing each other, and growing in their Judaism together.

Every once in a while I become aware of someone who has begun to make coming to shul a regular part of their weekly rhythm, who has begun to take part more actively and regularly in the life of the community — and that feels good. The high it does generate is more modest than the High of the High Holy Days, but it is also very real. And built in of course is the fact that people sometimes cycle out of shul life as well, for all kinds of reasons, and we have to have ways of processing that too. I know it’s going to be a lifetime of work but I think that’s what we signed up for.

What’s your experience been with using special events or themes as a way of bringing people out?

Ed

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Ed,

It seems like every month I get a request from one Jewish organization or another to make this “their” Shabbat. I have always resisted. But lately I’m wondering if we shouldn’t switch it up more. For example, on the Friday night before Rosh Hashana, instead of our usual Kabbalat Shabbat, we did a full poetry-meditation-music service, and I personally found it very moving. In a  way, it prepared me spiritually for the holidays better than a regular Kabbalat Shabbat would have, I think. But that wasn’t an external “theme” , it was just a different way of doing the Kabbalat Shabbat.

I think both you and I have “youth Shabbats” where teens come to lead the service. I’m not sure they would say yes to this at any other time of the year! But they come, as do their parents, and its such a nice feeling.

You and both have “family services” geared to younger kids. Are these “gimmicks”?

And the Torah cycle itself has special “theme” days—Shabbat Zachor before Purim, of example, or Shabbat Hagadol before Pesach. Were these the “gimmicks” of the Rabbis to bring people to a closer examination of the upcoming holiday?

The project called Synagogue 2000 introduced the idea of “Synaplex”—a lager synagogue building which would host several different services all on the same day—a chavurah-style, a more traditional davenning, a family service, a learner’s minyan. Are these merely “gimmicks?” Or are these ways to engage even more Jews, even more marginal folks who may not be comfortable or like the traditional Shabbat service? Are we dumbing down the synagogue experience, or diversifying it to serve more people? What do you think?

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

The word “gimmick” is of course so loaded, and subjective. The same event that feels like an artificial, dumbing-down gimmick to one person can feel like an incredibly moving experience to someone else, just the thing that allows them to walk through the door of the shul when they would otherwise feel alienated from what’s going on inside.

For me, the test is whether once they’ve walked through the door for whatever special event is taking place, they feel moved by the experience to come back when there isn’t a special event. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is value in one-off experiences that are meaningful, and like you I do offer such programs as Youth Shabbat and family services – and they’re great.

But as I think about my rabbinate, I realize that my preference is not to spend a great deal of time and energy on offering those kinds of experiences just so that I can have the rush of seeing lots of people coming into my building. I’d rather put my energy into offering experiences that will generate ongoing Jewish involvement and commitment. The trick is figuring out what those experiences are, and the spiritual challenge is accepting that the numbers who will engage in that ongoing way are inevitably going to be smaller than the numbers of those who come out for terrific one-time events. It’s just the reality of human nature. And it requires a different metric of “success” as a rabbi.

The original name of the month of Heshvan was Mar Heshvan, and one popular explanation links the word “Mar” to the Hebrew word for bitter – bitter because there are no holidays during this month. I prefer to think of the word Mar as deriving from the honorific Hebrew word “Mr.” There is no bitterness for me in a month without moadim – special times on the calendar. Ordinary time is deserving of respect too – it’s a pleasure to have a stretch of time dedicated to the spiritual work of deriving meaning from ordinary time, from ongoing presence, participation, and commitment without any bells or whistles.

Hodesh Tov!
Ed

“The High Holiday Preaching Blues”

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

Every month we correspond in this forum about things that are on our mind, and share our musings with our communities and beyond. This month, I’m pretty sure I can guess what’s on your mind. Rabbis the world over experience the period leading up to the High Holy Days with anticipation, but also with some dread. In addition to all the arrangements and logistics, rabbis have to prepare their sermons – which need to be interesting, challenging, engaging, inspiring, entertaining, wise, deep, witty, learned, funny, serious, relevant, clear, well-written, well-delivered, and most important — not too long. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, links the importance placed on the rabbi’s sermon in the High Holy Day service to people’s estrangement from the prayers themselves, which many find baffling to the point of opaque: “I mean no disrespect for the High Holy Day sermons that rabbis labor endlessly to write and to deliver when I say that people expect so much of them precisely because they expect so little of the liturgy.” How do you understand the purpose of the rabbi’s High Holy Day sermon in the contemporary synagogue, and do you think what the rabbi says during those 20-30 minutes, however brilliant, really makes a difference in people’s lives?

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Ed

Hi Ed,

I remember our homiletics teacher at seminary, Dr. Kravitz, saying something like trying to inspire people on the high holidays with a sermon is like trying to fill a small-necked jug from 100 feet away with a water hose! The best we can hope for—or that I hope for—is to say one small thing that will touch one person. If I do that, I’m happy. I don’t think it’s an unrealistic goal. To inspire those who come in hostile, or already convinced they will be bored? I try and engage them in some other way, by making services as varied and interesting as possible, changing up the tunes, explaining the choreography, inviting them to repeat something after me, introducing a new idea in the middle of something, getting them to connect with the people next to them at some point. I don’t see my sermon as the end-all and be-all of their experience, although I know they have been “trained” in their childhood or past congregation to expect that.

The great themes of the high holidays always seem to be what people want to hear: how can I be a better person? How can I connect more with my true values and my true self? How can I be a more fulfilled person in the coming year? It’s our job, I think, to help people navigate those questions though the lens of Judaism. That’s what the sermon is for.

But Rabbi Hoffman’s question is a crucial one. Indeed for so many people the “highlight” of the service is the sermon because they don’t understand the prayers, don’t “get” their history or significance, and feel awkward praying at all. But the liturgy itself is so powerful: Unetaneh Tokef— who will live and who will die? There isn’t a congregant who doesn’t feel the reality sting of that prayer. Avinu Malkenu— how can God be so far and yet so near? The confession—who wants to feel hard-hearted? I think it’s equally our job to prepare people to be emotionally very present for those special prayer moments. I spend time writing poetic and moving intros to those prayers, and helping people understand that within each of these deep liturgical pieces there is a mini-sermon already.

So, what are you going to preach about this year?

Elyse

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

I agree with you that the great themes of the High Holy Days lend themselves to sermon topics, especially the theme of individual growth and change. This year, I have two ideas that I’m working on that I’m going to share with my community on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur respectively.

One is the theme of friendship. We all long for connection with others of like mind, “soul-mates” who understand us, people we know we can trust. Many of us find that kind of deep connection elusive. We may have umpteen “friends” on Facebook, but we can still be quite lonely. What inhibits us from establishing and maintaining deep relationships with others? In this context, I’m also going to explore what it means to be friends with Israel, and what it means to be friends with God, in our time.

My second theme is authenticity. I find myself wondering a lot about the oft-heard phrase “Be Yourself”. What does that really mean? What is the true self to which we are “returning” as we do teshuvah each year? Are there contexts and situations in which honest revelation of self is not the right move? How do we understand authenticity in the context of the synagogue service, when we are all get together to recite a liturgy developed centuries ago in places very far away geographically and ideologically from our own?

These are both themes that I have wrestled with personally. It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to work through some of my own thinking with the community when it is gathered in such great numbers on the yomtovim. But I am humbled by Dr. Kravitz’s summary of the almost impossible task before us as preachers, and share your assessment that if one thing I say touches one person that will be a success.

How about you? What’s your focus going to be this year?

Ed

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Hi Ed,

For Rosh Hashanah I’m going to talk about how to choose a narrative of hope over  narrative of fear, and Im going o base it, of course, on the American elections rhetoric, without getting political! For Kol Nidre, I read a powerful book over the summer called Being Wrong and I’m going to talk about why its so hard to admit we are mistaken‚ and how thats the path and root of teshuva.  And for Yom Kippur, I had a terrible personal experience with “trolls” online after I posted my strong article on fasting on Tisha B’av—based on our respectful dialogue here. So I decided to talk about the end of civil discourse; basically, about the “new” parameters of lashon hara, especially on social media, and to call for a return to civility (which forms as Canadians, should be natural!!)

No matter what we both talk about, its a powerful time of year and our chance to really say something of import. Kinda scary. But I take to heart this teaching from Bereshit Rabbah, and I know you do too:

“Just as fish grow up in water but still, when one drop of rain falls from above they receive it in such great thirst, as if they never had the taste of water before, so too are the Jewish people: even though they’ve grown up in the “waters” of Torah, when they hear something new from Torah, they receive it in such great thirst, it’s as if it’s the very first word of Torah they’ve ever heard.”

Shana Tova to you, your family, and your whole congregation!

The End of Civil Discourse?

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Hi Ed,

A colleague of mine who blogs frequently once wrote this advice: “Never, ever, ever read the comments. They are ugly, hateful, and often personal attacks. Publish your blog and move on.” This is extraordinary difficult for the teacher in me. I used to love the give-and-take of the classroom, the back-and-forth dialogue that leads to deeper understanding and closer relationships. The moments of clarity which come from having your own deep-seated opinions challenged. The new way of looking at something. The “oh, I never thought of it that way!” moment. I cherish sitting with someone who may totally disagree with my reading of a text, or whose life experience colours their way of seeing a commentary very differently than I do, and struggling to hear why they see it the unique way that they do.

But it’s truly a struggle for people with strong opinions and time-tested beliefs to hear other strong opinions that challenge their own.

In Eruvin 13b we read: “Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argued. One side said that the halachah is like us, and the other said that the halachah is like us. A Bat Kol [a Heavenly voice] called out: Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chaim — These and these (i.e. both of these) are the words of the Living G-d, but the halacha is that of Hillel. A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: ‘Both these and those are the words of the Living G-d’ why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.”

In the past few years, this kind of respectful listening and dialogue has become more and more rare in the Jewish world. Whether discussing Black Lives Matter, Israel, Women of the Wall, LGBTQ Jews, or any other number of “hot” topics, many Jews feel silenced, bullied, invisible, personally attacked, and fiercely critiqued in the Jewish press.

Yet we face an inner contradiction: the profound belief that it is wrong to remain silent in the face of great assimilation, or halachic deviation, or the “one who leads others astray,” while remaining steadfast to the admonitions against lashon hara (slander), sinat chinam (gratuitous hatred one Jew toward another), and motzi shem ra (injuring the reputation of another Jew.)

The optimist in me still wants to believe that from the example of Hillel and Shammai we can relearn the art of Jewish dialogue, even with those whose way of being Jewish challenges us to our very core. But I am not sure anymore, if my eyes happen to slip to the comments section of any Jewish blogger who veers from the “mainstream.”

How can we remain clear in our own opinions yet not silence those with whom we disagree? And what if we disagree deeply with them about core values like Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, or the religious equality of women?

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

You raise one of the most profound dilemmas of our time. It is of course not limited to the Jewish community. Jews are – as ever, and for better or for worse – caught up in the movements and trends coursing through the society around us. And society is becoming more polarized and more silo-ed, while technology is allowing for an anonymity that enables some people to say things they wouldn’t say to another’s face.

Not that we should romanticize the past. Beit Hillel’s gracious attitude toward Beit Shammai was remarkable and noteworthy –sin’at hinam among Jews seems to have been, sadly, more the norm in the ancient world than not.

You ask how we can speak our mind about our principles, strongly, without becoming trolls. One possible strategy would be to continually ask ourselves if our arguments focus on the issue at hand, or on the character of the person we are disputing with. Obviously the former is better. That distinction becomes hard, however, when we determine that the person’s character is itself a legitimate issue, for example with politicians who are asking for our vote.

But if every time we speak up, we could ask ourselves once and ask ourselves again before pressing “Submit” three questions: 1) whether we really need to question or attack somebody’s character in order to make our point, 2) whether some of our discourse is really designed to make ourselves look clever rather than actually argue the issue at hand, and 3) whether there actually might be something in our opponent’s position that has merit and warrants consideration — then I think much (though not all) of the ugly stuff we see out there could be eliminated.

Such self-auditing would go a long way towards cultivating a “Beit Hillel” type of discourse in our community and beyond. The question is, how do we get there? I see religion as potentially having an important role in this issue. Do you think there are ways that we as rabbis could model or educate toward that type of discourse, while still maintaining our role as strong spokespeople for particular points of view?

Ed

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Ed,

Yes we should be self-auditing all the time, and studying the laws of lashon ha-ra would go a long way to help us. Those laws are so strict that in fact it’s hard, if not impossible, to say anything about anyone!

I’d love to see a Jewish-community-wide effort to reinstall civil discourse. We could start with Rabbis taking a pledge themselves not to attack fellow Rabbis whose denomination or political stance is not their own. And Rabbis could actually ask congregants to take a written vow of civil discourse in all matters relating to synagogue policy or synagogue customs. Lets start with that expectation of our Shul Boards!

The trickier question is about learning how to critique well. There is nothing wrong with critique—in fact, often it is righteous indignation that forces positive change upon the world.  The Torah commands us in Leviticus 19:17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour strongly, so you will not share in their guilt.” To rebuke—hocheach tocheach—is said twice for emphasis. We are commanded to rebuke, and there are scores of texts that point out how important it is to rebuke. Some texts go even further and say the verse says we should not hate a fellow Jew in our hearts: privately. But publicly? All gloves are off.

I’m left with the feeling that on the one hand we should be polite Canadians as much as possible, while on the other hand we should speak our minds forcefully especially when we see someone “going astray.” So how do we balance those contradictory instincts, especially at this sensitive time of year right before the High Holy Days, when you and I want to preach sermons which will make people sit up, listen, and be better? Doesn’t that kind of sermon necessitate some strong rebuking, even if we use the nicest words possible?

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

Sometimes when I hear people engage in tochechah (rebuke), I wonder whether they are actually trying to convince the other person or group of their point of view – or whether their real goal is make themselves and others on “their side” feel better, by strongly articulating the position they already believe in.

Sometimes there’s a place for shoring up one’s own side. But if that’s what we’re doing, we should be honest about it. If on the other hand we think we are really trying to persuade others, that effort calls for a very different kind of discourse. Nobody likes to hear rebuke from others. It’s at best uncomfortable, and can at worst lead to anger or resentment or lashing out. Given that, the only hope that others will actually listen to our tochecha is to have them feel that we understand them, even love them – and it is from the context of that understanding and love that our criticism comes.

That is so, so hard for the rebuker – because we often don’t have that understanding or that love in our hearts for people whose actions or positions we abhor. Can I be expected to understand or love those who dispute Israel’s right to exist? Can I be expected to understand or love those who reject the right of women to have an equal prayer space at the Kotel? Can I be expected to understand or love those who want to build walls to keep out refugees from war or persecution, rather than find ways to help these most vulnerable of human beings?

Perhaps not. Perhaps given the depth of my own feelings about these issues, showing understanding of the other side is a superhuman expectation. But given that this is Elul, and we are supposed to stretch ourselves spiritually this month, I’m going to challenge myself to try. 

Can I, in dialogue with those who dispute Israel’s right to exist, express understanding of their moral commitment to the people who were in the land prior to the beginning of the Zionist project, even while articulate my own moral position on the legitimacy of Israel? Can I, in dialogue with those who reject equal prayer spaces at the Kotel, express understanding of their extraordinary and steadfast commitment to tradition, and their fears about the impact of modernity on Jewish identity and practice in the contemporary world, even while I articulate my own steadfast belief that public spaces in Israel need to welcome and validate diverse kinds of Jews? Can I, in dialogue with those who are working to keep out refugees, express understanding of their concern about preserving the admirable character of the society we have built, even while I articulate my own strong belief that helping those in need only strengthens that character?

I don’t know if I can do any of that – especially if I get no indication that my interlocutors are not similarly trying to stretch themselves to understand my viewpoint. But if my goal is to actually engage with others of different viewpoints rather than just making myself and my supporters feel better, then I think I have to try. And then try again. Without worrying that in so doing I will be undermining my own position. This is definitely a major challenge in the current environment, but it is the challenge that I believe your initial question sets up.

Hodesh Tov,

Ed

The Olympics: Higher, Faster, Stronger…and More Jewish?

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

Our monthly blog this time coincides with the opening of the Rio Olympics. Amidst all the commentary on the games that we have already been exposed to, and the wall to wall coverage of the competitions that we can expect over the next couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about what a Jewish perspective on the Olympics might be.

Many issues came to mind, but I’d like to highlight two. One is the place of Israel in the Olympics. For those of us who still share something of the Herzlian vision of Zionism, in which the Jewish state will be a “normal” country, like all the others, the Olympics provides a wonderful outlet for this aspiration. At opening ceremonies in Rio’s Maracanã stadium, the Israeli athletes will march in between those of Iceland and Italy. Israeli athletes will compete in sports such as judo, gymnastics, golf, wrestling, and triathlon. Israelis will of course cheer on their athletes, and Canadian Jews can cheer on Canada along with all other Canadians, but also cheer the Israelis just as Portuguese Canadians cheer Portugal and Korean Canadians cheer South Korea. The Olympics at its best is a celebration of the ability of nations to compete non-violently, and Israel’s participation affirms its place as one nation, among all the other nations.

But of course we know Israel is, as always, different. The horrific massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists in Munich in 1972 hangs over any reflection on Israel’s participation in the Games. Iran won’t allow its athletes to compete against Israeli athletes. Some corners of the BDS movement have been advocating banning Israel from the games. The Olympic ideal has been tarnished in many ways over the years, including doping scandals, cost overruns, exploitation of the most vulnerable citizens in the host city, and environmental degradation. For those of us who love Israel, there is the additional problem of the intrusion of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which threatens to take away from the pure thrill of seeing Israeli athletes compete like those of every other country in the world – and every once in a while, actually win.

The second Jewish issue which the Olympics raises for me is a more spiritual one, because sport in general opens up the large issue of Jewish attitudes toward the human body. We know that one of the objections which the Maccabees had to Hellenistic culture was the emphasis on athletics, which was associated with idolatry in the eyes of the Maccabees and later, the ancient rabbis. We may not have the same concerns as our forebears about athletes bowing down to statues, but might the extraordinary focus on winning in the Olympic games be construed in some fashion as idolatry? The Olympic motto is “Higher, Faster, Stronger” – but Jewish texts point me to very different life goals: “Better, Kinder, More Generous”. Can we reconcile the two?

Ed

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Hi Ed,

Good points and here’s the one that gives me pause: why do we celebrate this kind of competition, first-place and second-place winners and losers? Doesn’t Judaism ask us for “personal best” rather than “besting” someone else?

I think of the traditional study hall. Pairs of students (yes, traditionally only males but now everyone welcome at least in liberal circles) engaged in a kind of intense mind-to-mind combat over a text. But no one rejoices when another fails, or gets a wrong answer, or asks a questions, or needs direction. The camaraderie is about achieving something together. Yes it’s this way in team sports but not in the sports that give medals to, as you say, fastest, highest, strongest.

Another pause: the Olympics in their purest form should be about sports. But they really bring out an uber-nationalism that makes me uncomfortable. My country makes me proud, yes—but not to the extent that no other country matters.

And a third pause: the politics of the Olympics are obnoxious. Chapter 5 of the Olympic charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas.” Really?  The Olympics have had boycotts, protests, walkouts and terrorist attacks. The 1938 Olympic Games were intentionally awarded to Nazi Germany. Beijing? A place so filled with abuses of power and human rights violations it makes the “neutrality” of the Olympics a ridicule. Sochi with its anti-gay laws?

And while I’m at it, like so many other events and parades, it’s become totally commercial. “The official this-and-that of the Olympics” sure sells goods.

Yeah, I’m the scrooge that hates the Olympics. But go ahead and watch, because truly some of it is beautiful. It’s just beauty that’s really tarnished for me.

RabbiElkin

Elyse,

All your points are well-taken. I don’t think any serious observer of the Olympics would find the beauty untarnished, because the flaws you enumerate, and others, are so clear. Like so many other areas of human endeavor, including religion, and politics, and the legal system, the Olympics highlights a clash between the ideal and the real which can be truly depressing.

When this clash becomes particularly apparent, many people choose to withdraw. Disappointment with the gap between the real and the ideal is at least part of the story behind why fewer people than ever are involved in their religious institutions, and why so few exercise their franchise and vote in our elections. There are ample grounds for cynicism in our society, in no area more than in sport.

And yet…most Jews embrace athletics as an important part of the human experience. Despite our ancestors’ serious reservations about the ancient Greek focus on athleticism, the Jewish Community Centre, with its up-to-date athletic facilities, has become an important Jewish institution in virtually every community. One where you and I often run into each other, and into our congregants. We have accepted the prevailing wisdom of our society that in addition to being spiritual creatures, we are also very much embodied creatures, and we have a responsibility to keep our bodies as healthy as we can through exercise. We have also come to accept the value of organized physical activity and sports for young people, and so make sure that our kids have the opportunity to participate in individual or team sports according to their interests. The yeshiva bochurs you describe engage in that wonderful mind-to-mind combat over a text for hours, and in so doing they reflect a terrific Jewish value, but to stay healthy in the bodies God gave them, they also need to get outside and move – and that’s also an important Jewish value.

And most Jews, despite cynicism about the Olympics or professional sports leagues, also follow spectator sports to one degree or another. Once we’ve bought into the idea of the value of athletics as a legitimate human endeavour, there really is something inspiring about watching fellow human beings who are really, really good at it. Just as we admire amazing artists or musicians or actors who achieve feats that are almost unimaginable in their fields of excellence, so too are most of us legitimately awe-struck by seemingly super-human achievements in athletics. And the hyper-competitive aspect you rightly decry provides a drama that most people find irresistible. The Rio Olympics will, I assume, draw its usual gazillions of viewers all over the world. And I will likely be one of them.

Can the Olympics be made better? I sure hope so, because so much about it is so deeply flawed. I think the best values of religion, ours and others’, can usefully be brought into the conversation about how to improve this very human institution. I continue to believe that there is a kernel of something positive in the universal vision of the Olympics that I hope can be nurtured. In a world filled with such vivid cultural differences, sports is one area that can at least potentially bring human beings together. In this, as in so many other areas, I have to be a man of faith!

Ed

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Ed,

Yes indeed— healthy body, healthy mind. You know I cycle like crazy and work out every day. I’m a big Blue Jays fan and go to their games all summer long, cheering along with everyone else. ( I even have a Blue Jays kipa!) So its not the attention to our bodies and our “embodiedness” that I dislike, or our sports culture—just the opposite. I think embodying our Judaism is something we absolutely must address. We are much too sedentary as a people, we love to eat fatty foods, and three hours in shul (four counting the kiddush that follows!)on a gorgeous warm summer Saturday may not be what the doctor ordered, to be honest. Our congregation did Shabbat services on the Island last year and people brought bikes. Yes thats not a halachic Shabbat but it sure was a mind-body balance experience we don’t often get in shul. So lets do yoga during services—yes! It’s the Olympic showiness, the self-promoted aura of purity that is constantly challenged by drug tests, and the rampant commercialism that turns us into armchair-participants when we buy a logo toque or watch endless commercials for sugary sodas that I dislike. None of that is present when I’m on my bike or lifting weights. 

And then again I also dislike TV and the amount of time it takes away from real life into virtual real life.

But like you I celebrate achievement and eschew cynicism. Like everything else in life, things can always get better! And perhaps the Olympics will inspire our community into a religious “personal best” and embodied davenning that will be worthy of gold medals.