Monday, September 5, 2016

#BlogElul 2: Act - Thinking about Mitzvot as a kind of technology

Every year, my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, offers bloggers a shared list of themes that, if followed, allow for some neat collections of thought pieces or images (the #ElulGram) to be found throughout the web on the same theme on the same day. While I seldom keep up with a daily post during this month, I'll be following the general flow of the themes above, and thank Phyllis for the connections that she helps us all make in the blogosphere. On Facebook or Twitter, just search for #BlogElul to see what others are writing.

Inspired by my teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, who has been thinking a great deal in recent years about disruptive innovations and how they might be reshaping Jewish experience in North America and beyond. I'd like to riff off of Phyllis' theme of day 2, 'Act' by introducing the notion that Mitzvot can be thought of as a kind of technology. It was Clay Shirky who, in talking about disruptive innovations, asked us to consider of whatever is the focus of our attention the question, 'what job does it do?' In one easy to grasp example that he offers, he considers the ways in which new technologies have changed the way that we consume music. From the gramophone which brought the sounds of live performances into the homes of listeners, to the rise of the cassette tape and the introduction of the portable cassette player and then the 'walkman', enabling us to carry our own music with us into the street and other spaces; from the CD player to the iPod, exponentially increasing how much music we could transport with us and how little space in our homes we would need to store it, to today's online streaming music services. As consumers, we have responded to each new technology that made listening to music, finding new music, and sharing music a little bit easier. In the process, companies that made old hardware had to either recreate themselves to offer the newer technology, or would find themselves out of business. When something came along that did the essential job better, cheaper, in a way that was more portable, offered more choice, etc. it became the next thing.

We can take Shirky's question, 'what job does it do?' And ask it of all kinds of things that we use or choose to do. If we accept his basic assumption, if it has a purpose, we will continue to use it or do the activity in question. Religion clearly does an important job for many people. For sure, we live at a time when more people than in the past are questioning that assumption, but the fact that so many of us are engaged in religious life, communities of faith, and ritual practices, suggest that these continue to do a job for us, as individuals and as a community. Exactly what that job is is a little more complex to define than the role of something that delivers music, and the answer may not be the same for everyone. Yet, as the societies and cultures that we live in continues to evolve and change, being able to look at our traditions through this lens can help us stay true to the essence of what Judaism is helping us do even if some of the outer forms (style of a service, choice of music, where rituals take place, the role of online communities, etc.) are changing.

In traditional verbiage, a mitzvah is a commandment. To young children, we sometimes say it is a good deed. But that doesn't really capture the full essence of mitzvah. Some of the acts that are commanded as Mitzvot are ethical in nature, but some don't come with an explanation in Torah or in rabbinical texts. What would it look like to take a list of Mitzvot and ask the question from a modern perspective, 'what job does it do?'. Rabbi Kula is thinking about a project that does exactly this. If we can demonstrate how a mitzvah deepens our awareness of the world, strengthens our relationships with others, enables us to have an experience that we might label holy or spiritual, provides a mechanism for taking care of the vulnerable and needy, brings mindful awareness to our engaging in ordinary, everyday things, and so on... We can begin to reframe the deep, deep value of some of the Mitzvot of our tradition. Mitzvah as a technology that we can use.... What mitzvah comes to mind that really speaks to you and helps to shape your sense of self, or sense of holy, or sense of obligation to another?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

#BlogElul 1 5776: Who am I? What do I aspire to be?

creative commons; attribution 273C on
Who am I?

One of the most essential and yet perhaps most difficult of questions to answer. I can tell you where I was born. I can tell you about my family. I can tell you what I do for a living. I can tell you about some of my favorite and least favorite activities. Perhaps I can go a little deeper and tell you about some of the characteristics that are most present in me, and others that are not so present. I can tell you what I most like about myself and what most disappoints me about myself.

How much of the above gets to the essence of who I am?  How much is superficial and descriptive? Is it even possible to respond to the question of 'Who are you?' in words, or is the best answer, perhaps, the way that we conduct ourselves and the things that we do with the length of our days?

As we begin the hebrew month of Elul, which announces that we are approaching another Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this is the time that our traditions encourage us to reflect on these core questions of essence. Who am I? Who do I aspire to be? This year, those of us in the USA are also asking that question communally in a more intense and reflective way. Once every four years, as we decide who will represent us in the highest office in the land, we look at the character of our leaders and the way that they describe the landscape in which they hope to govern and make progress. We have to ask ourselves, who do we aspire to be? What values will shape our sense of self as a nation?

As in previous years, I will be using my blog to offer brief reflections several times a week during Elul, that provide some food for thought as we grapple with these core questions. This year, I'm going to be using the lens of technology and technological innovation to inspire a different way of trying to get at the essence of what it means to be human. This is inspired by the topic that our congregation has taken on for the coming 1.5 years, supported by a grant from 'Scientists in Synagogues' provided by Sinai and Synapses. Here is an excerpt from a book that has been inspiring a lot of my thinking as I prepare sermons for the High Holy Days this year on this topic:

Kevin Kelly, author of ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future” presents the following insights:

… we’ve been redefining what it means to be human. Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents that we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI [artifical intelligence], we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans… We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special?(p. 48-9)

Today, many of the debates about the impact of technological innovation on our sense of self and our communities gets simplified into the binaries of 'good' or 'bad' impacts. But we are, and have always been, creatures who use technological innovation to enable us to do more and be more. From the most basic of tools that enabled us to mold, shape, and change things in our natural environment, to the technologies that enabled us to write - first on clay plastered on rocks, then on papyrus or parchment, and later in books, with printing presses enabling an enormous leap forward in the democratization of knowledge, literacy, and language - we are not and could not be who we are today, either individually or communally, without the integral role that technologies have played in enabling us to become more.

I hope you will join me in this exploration of ideas as we look at the question of 'who am I?' through a different lens, as we begin this month to recenter ourselves and find our way back to more deeply understanding 'who do I aspire to be?'

Monday, April 11, 2016

Kosher Wines for Passover: Not your Grandfather's Manischewitz!

Last week, I co-hosted a Kosher for Passover wine tasting at Julio's Liquors in Westborough. Julio's, for those not familiar with it, is not your typical liquor store. They hold several free tasting events a week, ranging from wine evenings, to whiskey, to beer, and many weekend afternoon festivals featuring large selections from multiple distributors. They have a large basement space dedicated to these events. For me, the result is that I've not bought anything that I didn't like in the past four years, because I've had an opportunity to taste pretty much everything I've purchased prior to buying.

With around 70 people filling the room, we had a lot of fun tasting a broad range of kosher for Passover wines from all over the world, distributed by Monsieur Touton wines. For those who could not attend in person but wanted a review so that they could stop by to make a purchase before Passover (or for those reading this in other locations who are on the hunt for something a bit different), here are my tasting notes from the evening.

I began the evening with a quick history of wine-producing among Jews, what makes a wine Kosher (and kosher for Passover), and what the origins of the four cups of wine are. I won't post the full presentation here, but just a few key points:
1) Ancient Israel is one of the earliest sources of vineyard growth and wine making in the world. Biblical references include Noah, and the 12 spies who brought a huge vine of grapes back from Canaan as proof of the fertility of the land.
2) The Talmud references 60 varieties of wine. Wines were flavored with spices, salt, date honey, and cooked into a sweet syrup (the equivalent of today's Manischewitz and other sweet kiddush wines).
3) In winemaking there is a process called 'fining' which helps to remove some of the soluble particulates from wine. These can be from organic or inorganic sources. When an animal product is used it renders the wine unkosher. Additionally, for those who are strictly observant, a wine will need a kosher certification stamp on it. Kosher for Passover wines are those where the certifiers will verify that the wine has not come into contact with any grain product from harvest to production.  Wine that is 'mevushal' is very quickly flash pasteurized. Today, that can be done with lasers. Historically, it left a somewhat 'cooked' odor to the wine, but today's technology can lead to some 'mevushal' wines being pretty good. The reason for this process has to do with some pretty ancient halachah about avoiding wines that may have been used for idolatrous purposes, and/or mixing with non-Jews in taverns. It has little relevance today, except for strictly observant Jews who continue to follow the letter of the law.
4) The Passover Seder was modeled on the Greek Symposium - a gathering that involved copious amounts of wine drinking. There was some debate in the Talmud about how many cups of wine should be drunk at a Seder. It took a while for our ritual today to become fully formed and settled. One interesting remnant of the original debate is 'Elijah's Cup'. When some rabbis advocated for a fifth cup (based on how they were parsing phrases in Exodus that refer to God's redemption of the slaves from Egypt), it was decided to pour a fifth cup but not drink it. Elijah, who tradition has it will announce the coming of the Messiah, was also understood by these ancient rabbis to be able to answer all unanswered questions when he came. Apparently, this included the question of how much wine we should drink at our Seder!

Here are the wines we sampled and their 'regularly listed' price. For those going to Julio's who mention last week's tasting, they will honor the preferential pricing they had, while stocks last.

Louis Blanc 'Les Favieres' 2015 Coteaux Varois en Provence $19.99
This is an excellent Rose wine that I'd be happy to drink at any time. If you are serving chicken at your Seder, this would be a nice accompaniment. Hints of watermelon, raspberry, and mint. Vibrant, long finish. Mevushal.  This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.

Joseph Mellot 'La Graveliere' 2014 Sancerre $31.99
From the Loire Valley in NE France. The priciest wine that we tasted, but an exceptionally good Sancerre. 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Flavors of red grapefruit, balanced minerals, and a little spice on the finish. This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.

O'Dwyers Creek 2015 Sauvignon Blanc $16.99
100% single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. Also organic, vegan and mevushal.
More a mix of tropical fruits (pineapple and passion) than the Sancerre. Citrus, lemon/lime finish -  more acidity than the Sancerre. Very fragrant.

Ella Valley Vineyards 2013 Estate Chardonnay $20.98
100% Chardonnay
I've been a big fan of Ella Valley wines since I tasted them about 10 years ago at an Israeli Wine Festival at the Israel museum, Jerusalem (the same museum that holds the Dead Sea Scrolls). I don't love all of their range equally, but on the whole I've found them to be consistently among the better wines to come out of Israel. Not the cheapest here in the USA, but I'd rather pay an extra $5 for an Ella wine than a mediocre Dalton, Alfasi, or Carmel wine any day.

A light, almost sherbert-like crispness with green apple, lemon, and a touch of cinnamon. If you like Chardonnay, you'll like this one.  Monsieur Touton is no longer carrying Ella Valley wines, so the case or two that is left at Julio's is the last they'll be bringing into the State of MA for a while.

Louis Blanc 'Vintage' 2012 Cotes du Rhone $14.99
Main grape is Syrah. Also some Grenache and one or two other varietals in small quantities.
Dark blackcurrant and peppery finish with medium tannins. Will pair well with lamb or beef.

La Fille du Boucher (The Butcher's Daughter) 2012 Bordeaux Reserve $14.99
70% Merlot 30% Cabernet. A great story to this wine. Named for the daughter of the largest Kosher meat family producer in France. The daughter runs a famous kosher restaurant in the Old Jewish quarter, Paris.  This wine is a very dry red with deep fruits and medium tannins and a long finish. You'll enjoy this if you like an earthier, heavier red. Will pair well with a fattier meat like lamb or a brisket.

Luis Felipe Edwards 'Terra Vega' 2014 Bin No. 964 Carmenere $7.99  From Chile
This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.
This was a big hit at our tasting. Very pleasant, fruity wine that is very competitively priced. Lacks some of the depth of the larger, drier reds, but a very nice wine to either drink by itself, or with a lighter meat dish. I'd even suggest pairing with chicken or turkey if you prefer a red wine. It has a beautiful deep, red color but is light on the nose and has a fruity, blueberry taste with a slightly peppery finish.

Ella Valley Vineyards 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon $29.99
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot.
See my notes above the Ella Chardonnay for my personal preference for this winemaker and the limited availability moving forward in MA.

This is a well-rounded, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon wine. It has deep blackcurrant tones, a hint of licorice, and forthright but well-balanced tannins. I'm making a Moroccan beef stew for my Seder so this is the kind of full-flavored dry red that will pair well with a rich, meaty dish. It might be a bit heavy on the tannins and spice for some (in which case the Carmenere is probably the wine for you), but this and La Fille Du Boucher are, in my opinion, the more sophisticated and 'big' wines of the range that we tasted.

Cantina Gabriele 'Vino' NV Sweet Red $9.99.
70% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese.
Think of this as a better 'upmarket' version of Manischewitz. It has a very slight sparkle to it and is sweet but not cloying or syrupy. It comes from South of Rome and is certified vegan as well as Kosher.  This isn't my personal taste - I like a chilled dessert wine like a light Muscat, Sauternes, or Icewine. But this one was also a sell-out at the tasting, and I even brought home a bottle, knowing that I'll have guests who really won't enjoy the Ella Valley Cabernet but would rather have something like this. And its only 5.5% ABV!

I hope you try something a little different for your Passover meal this year. One thing everyone at our tasting came away appreciating - there's much more to Kosher wine than Manischewitz!
Chag Pesach Sameach!