Thursday, November 29, 2012

Who Speaks for Judaism?

Cross-posted from the Rabbis Without Borders blog at

As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest. The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage. Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013. British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.

For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air. Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.

However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time. The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community. Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down. The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church. The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.

And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time. Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.

Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK. Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable. Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.

In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent. While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great. Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.

In truth, these are not new phenomena. This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label. But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part. They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.

Those needs still exist. And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs. But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together. Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.

And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thankful Heart Changes Everything

Last night I delivered the sermon at our Westborough Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  It was a charming evening that brought many from the town together.  This was the 40th year that the town has held this service.

A prayer of gratitude… attributed to Homer.  No, not that Homer – Homer Simpson.  It goes like this: 
Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here's the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done.” (Homer Simpson, as written by  Dan Castellaneta).

Of course, despite being quite funny, the requisite response to Homer’s words, is ‘Doh!’  The only thing in this world that stays the same is change. So if we can only express gratitude when we are coasting on the peak experiences of life, we are likely to feel quite ungrateful for substantial periods of time.

But can we really muster up an attitude of gratitude when life isn’t plain sailing?  How can we get there, and why does it make a difference?

Now, I’ve only been in town since July but in the 5 short months that I’ve been at B’nai Shalom, my congregants have already learned that I’m not so much of a morning person.  I tend to burn the candle at the other end of the day. But it takes me a couple of hours each morning to get up to full speed.  When the alarm goes off at the quite respectable time of 7am, I’m more inclined to turn it off with a groan.  But the Jewish tradition invites us to utter a sentence in prayer each and every morning, the moment we are aware of gaining consciousness again.  That prayer begins, Modah Ani Lefanecha… thankful am I before You.  Thankful am I before you! Not, ‘urgghh, do I have to get up already?’  Thankful am I before you.  And even though I may not literally recite the blessing, my awareness of its message helps refocus me on the days that I am reluctant to get going.

The prayer functions as a mantra for daily mindfulness.  We find that many faith traditions have similar ways of placing an attitude of gratitude into our hearts and minds.  And what they all particularly have in common is their attachment to the ordinary, every day events of our lives. 

It is not at the peak moments of life that our spiritual traditions ask us to bring gratitude to mind.  While we may well take those moments for granted when we should not, it is not those moments that faith and spiritual practice provide support and help with.  Rather it is the moments that are so mundane that we take them for granted almost every single day.  And so Jews have a blessing for waking up.  Christians and Jews utter brief words of gratitude before eating a meal. 

Buddhist and Vepassana meditation begins by bringing attention to the simple act of breathing in and out, bringing to mind an echo at the end of Psalm 150, ‘Let each and every breath be a praise to God.’  During the five daily prayers in Islamic practice, a Muslim may utter words from the Qu’ran: Worship Allah, and be of those who give thanks. (Quran 39:66)

But while it is quite clear that every spiritual tradition prods and pokes us into mindful awareness of all the simple and quite ordinary things in life we could be grateful for - and that’s before we come to the Jewish Bathroom prayer – yes, we really do have a daily prayer of gratitude that is traditionally recited to give thanks that all the plumbing down there is working just fine - what changes when we adopt these spiritual practices and let them guide our daily consciousness?

A grateful heart does, quite literally, change everything.  Even in the midst of the most challenging periods in our lives, if we can bring awareness to the briefest moment of blessing, it can provide a spark of hope and light in dark times. I’m struck when I visit families after the death of a loved one that, even in the midst of the sorrow of loss, the ability to tell stories and share sweet memories can bring back smiles; sometimes even laughter.  While the pain of loss can be enormous, somehow it can coexist with these moments.  And the truth is, the pain only exists because of our capacity to love.  It is the blessing of the multitude of moments we shared that makes the loss so acute.  But we would not choose to give up one of those precious memories to avoid the pain of loss.

In recent weeks, as many of us have directed resources to help those most affected by Hurricane Sandy, in the midst of the loss and the extreme discomfort, we have all heard heart-warming stories about the moment a volunteer reaches the 25th floor of an apartment building in the Rockaways by foot to be greeted by an ever-so-grateful elderly resident as they hand over blankets and food. The places of worship that have opened their doors to provide shelter and hot meals to so many who are grateful that they have not been forgotten.  Each moment, a spark of light offering hope in the midst of darkness.

I’ll end with a story from the Hassidic Jewish world of the 1700s:

Some students of the Maggid of Mezheritz came to him. "Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?" The Maggid replied, "Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you."

The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.

When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. "Welcome, strangers!" he said. "Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!"

"No. We have come only to ask you a question. The Maggid of Mezheritz told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?"

Reb Zusya laughed. "Me? I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me." He shook his head in puzzlement. "You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles."

Imagine the power of such a positive orientation to living each and every day, whatever it brought with it. Ask yourself, how would Reb Zusya’s life, or even his state of mind, benefit from bringing his attention to things that he might have wanted and he lacked? What is the impact of his answer on his visitors? They may be amazed, but they are also inspired. If such a man, living such a simple and encumbered life, is able to taste the sweetness of each day, oriented to life with an attitude of gratitude, recognizing the daily miracles that continue to exist even in the midst of hardship… would not such a man inspire them toward a positive orientation to all that they are blessed with in life?

May we be so inspired and may our hearts, filled with gratitude, guide our hands and our communities to act so as to raise each other up, ever providing more for one another so that, turning to one another and seeing there the face of God, we can truly say to each other, ‘Modah Ani Lefanecha – thankful am I before You’.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to Make a Shiva Visit

Earlier this week I led a workshop at Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, to offer guidance on how to make a shiva visit to a mourner.  The workshop covered many practical and pragmatic aspects of shiva, particularly helping more congregants feel comfortable making a shiva visit to someone in their community that they don't know personally.  Much of what I offered was geared to the contemporary culture of a Reform Jewish community, with pragmatic advice on how to decide how many nights of shiva to have, how a shiva service may be run, etc.

The workshop was recorded and can be accessed via the link below.  If you are listening in from somewhere beyond Congregation B'nai Shalom I hope you also find the material helpful.  Please do feel free to add additional guidance or responses via the comments, either here on the blog or in the comments box on the sound cloud page where the workshop is hosted.

The article referenced during the workshop from can be accessed here.