For the Love of God!

A Protestant pastor remembers preaching a sermon on loving God and being interrupted by a congregant who blurted out, “Love God? Look at the problems God causes: devastating illness, hurricanes. earthquakes. And look at the problems God doesn’t prevent: wars, cruelty, persecution. Sure, this is stuff human beings bring about, but God just lets them happen. Love God you say?”

Jews don’t talk about loving God as much as Christians do, but it is our problem too, because the Sh’ma itself (Deuteronomy 6:5) commands us: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.”

How indeed can you love a God who allows such human suffering? I once worked with a woman who wore a T shirt saying “Life is a bitch and then you die.”

Traditional commentaries, like the Malbim, answer the objection by comparing God to a physician who causes a little pain now to avoid worse pain later – either in this life or the world to come.

But you have to believe in two things for that to work: a God who can and does reward the righteous; and an afterlife for the reward to happen. And nowadays, most people disbelieve both.

Yet these very same people may still wallow in the equally medieval notion of an all-powerful super-deity who ought to micro-manage our everyday affairs but doesn’t. If you still picture God that way, then you are stuck with the problem, and I don’t know any way around it except to remind you that almost 1000 years ago, Maimonides urged us to stop imaging God as a human being like ourselves, and adopt a more sophisticated idea of the divine.

But more sophisticated views of God come with more sophisticated questions – like the fact that love is an emotion, and you can’t command emotions the way you do behavior. That’s why Judaism deals in deeds. You can be expected to do what is right, whether you like it or not, but how can you be asked to dredge up love that just isn’t there?

S’fas emes provides the classical answer here: Love really is  there, he says — hardwired deep inside us; we just have to work at finding it. His answer follows classic Hasidic cosmology of a universe where sparks of divine light are trying to escape the morass of darkness that infiltrated the universe at the moment of creation. Finding love of God within us is like releasing the light from its darkened jail cell.

Still, suspecting I have love buried deep within me is not the same as being able to find it, and then to identify with it enough to overcome the insistent feeling that “Life is a bitch and then you die.” You can command behavior; but not emotions.

So Torah commands behavior, but Torah is more than commandments alone; it is also stories and poetry and just plain deep-down wisdom from an age-old tradition. What makes little sense as a command may still be great advice. “You shall,” here, may mean, “You really ought to,” as in, “You really ought to love God, you know, because, otherwise, you end up wearing the ‘Life is a bitch’ T shirt, and that’s a terrible way to greet each day.”

Maimonides, on one hand, and Einstein, on the other, gave up on God as a puppet master pulling the strings of our everyday lives. God is not even a “someone” at all. God is the cause of all causes, the ultimate sustainer of the natural order, an integral part of the universe. To love God is to appreciate that universe: to admire its beautiful sunsets, find the good in others, and marvel at equations that describe the laws of nature.

A positive outlook cannot be commanded, but it is really good advice: and it comes with its own T shirt: “Someday we will die, but appreciating the world meanwhile is a gift worth living for.”

The Frontier of Anxious Identity

 

This address was delivered on May 16, 2017 as an acceptance of UJA-Federation of NY’s “SYNERGY Award for Synagogue Change”.  SYNERGY established this award to recognize individuals who have developed innovative strategies that help synagogues adapt and thrive by meeting the changing needs of the Jewish community.  In doing so, SYNERGY hopes to underscore the value of doing this work and inspire others to step into this space. Rabbi Hoffman was the recipient of this first of its kind award along with fellow honorees, Amy L. Sales, Ph.D., associate director and senior research scientist at Brandeis University; Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; and Isa Aron, Ph.D., professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR Los Angeles.

 

How honored I am to be here, among you, my valued colleagues — you who share my commitment to synagogues as the singular Jewish institution for American Jewish survival. No other institution comes even close to providing what Jews need to flourish in our time. We know from Jewish history, that Jews have flourished when, living in freedom, we have ridden the cultural waves of the host cultures in which we found ourselves. 16th-century Polish yeshivas, for example, were the Jewish equivalent of the Polish Renaissance, Cracow University and Copernicus. Rashi wrote sacred commentary, but so too did his French neighbors, the Christian school known as Victorines.

What, then, has been the American cultural wave, if not a commitment to that unique form of religious life known as Congregationalism. In America, congregations matter.

A second American phenomenon was the separation of church and state, depriving congregations of government support, and demanding that they innovate. American history is replete with religious competition, old churches that fail, and new ones that blossom. With 19th-century American expansion, for example, congregations formed denominational bodies so as to franchise member churches as the frontier moved ever West and South. Isaac Mayer Wise watched Unitarians do that at a conference in Cincinnati, and then put out a call for a Jewish Movement that we now call Reform.

In our time too, we must understand the era and the innovation it requires.

The foremost challenge of our time remains the passing of Jewish ethnicity, the idea that Jews are automatically conjoined at the hip by language, history, and memory – everything from Jewish food to Jewish foibles. Without doubt, that era is gone. Sociologist Marshall Sklare predicted it as early as 1955, when he studied synagogues and called them the Jewish equivalents to ethnic churches, likely to disappear within a generation or two. As ethnics, Jews belonged to synagogues as a matter of civic duty. But why belong now, when the language of the folk, Yiddish, is largely forgotten; when the new Jewish food is sushi; and when over 50% of the Jewish community will be born to at least one parent who has no Jewish memories at all. When Jewish ethnicity acquired a land (Israel) and a language (Hebrew) it became nationalism; living in America without the immediacy of either one, ethnicity becomes nostalgia, and as they say, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

We all know the polls that show heightened interest in spirituality. When Synagogue 2000 was new, I used to say, therefore, that the secret to innovation today was an infusion of synagogue spirituality. I still believe that, but I have come to see that the situation is more profound. At stake is the changing nature of identity itself.

The generations that knew Stalin and Hitler; that set records in attending college and winning Nobel prizes; that thrilled first hand to the miracle of Israel’s rebirth — that generation identified fully as Jews. Jews with no memory of any of this may also be happily Jewish – but happy being other things as well.

There’s the rub: for ethnic Jews, Jewish identity was “a given” bestowed by birth. We were Jews not just by religion but by habit, culture, food, and humor. With modernity, we added in nationality – we were Jews by religion but Americans by citizenship. Nowadays, we have added other things: gender, politics, vocation and even avocation. “I am an American, a husband, a lawyer, a tuba player, and, I guess, a Jew,” a young man told me not so long ago. The age of ethnicity has become as age of fractured identity, where we struggle to decide what aspect of identity takes priority and when.

But identity comes layered. Our surface identity is what we answer to officially:  our name, address, and social security number. Deeper than that is our list of passwords, the things people hack to “steal our identity.” Deeper still are the roles we play: mother, friend, professor, volunteer, feminist, and runner. Young men and women today face the question that never would have occurred to me: how important in all this is being Jewish? And what exactly does Jewish identity do?

The answer accesses the deepest level of human consciousness: our identity as a self. Strip yourself of job, marital status, and all the rest, and what is left, when you gaze into the mirror? When we die, and can show up for none of it, how will we be eulogized? Or while still alive, what deepest lessons do we pass on to our children. This deepest self is what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the self in moral space”; what another philosopher, Daniel Dennett, calls a “center of narrative gravity.” Who are we, when we think of ourselves as the central character in our life-narrative? What is the most important story we tell about who we think we are? What is left when we age and find slowly that all else is gone?

In this age of anxious identity, everything stands or falls with these centers of moral and of narrative gravity – something that synagogues alone can provide. Spirituality is more than just yoga, quietude, and self-care. It is the deepest satisfaction we get from the discovery that we do indeed have a core identity: that we are part of an eternal story that began before our birth and will continue after our death. The search for spirituality is, therefore, centrally bound up with the search for core identity: again, something synagogues alone are naturally outfitted to deliver – because core identity comes not in isolation, but through a community that connects us to something larger than ourselves: a set of ultimate principles; a master narrative in which we are a character; And a language with which to speak the deepest truths about them both.

Looking back on the several decades of synagogue transformation, I see two streams of intervention. The first is understandings borrowed from secular life: business schools, consultancies and organizational development. The second is the effort to transform what synagogues actually do: learning, say, or worship. Without doubt, these still matter – profoundly. But there is now this new frontier as well, the Frontier of Anxious Identity, the sense that even synagogues that run with all due organizational efficiency, even those that attend carefully to education, pastoral care, worship and so on, even they must inevitably fail if they do not think of themselves differently than ever before.

Synagogues must be not just relational but deep. They must self-evidently stand for something profound, and have the language to express just what it is they stand for. They must promise a moral and narrative core that gives life meaning.

May we go from strength to strength.

Beyond Bonfires: LaG Ba’Omer

We think of holidays as marking historical events; first come the events – then the holidays, to remember them: July 4, for example, to remember American independence or Passover to recall the Exodus from Egypt.

But sometimes holidays come first, and only afterward collect reasons for their being.  Take Lag Ba’omer, for example (it falls this Sunday).

Lag Ba’omer is the 33rd day of the Omer, the period of “counting” – sefirah, in Hebrew — from Passover to Shavuot. Tradition associates the sefirah with mourning: we do not marry then, for example.

The earliest explanation for the mourning goes back to a rabbinic legend according to which a plague wiped out 24,000 (or 12,000 or 3,000, depending on the source) of Rabbi Akiba’s students during the sefirah. But ninth-century Jews, who already did not marry then, did not know why. The 9th-century Gaon, Natronai, is the first to connect it to the story of the plague.

The idea of some months being inauspicious for marriages goes back to the Romans, who banned weddings during May and early June (roughly the sefirah period).  Jews probably picked up the Roman custom, and then centuries later wondered why. Natronai connected it to the Akiba legend.

Lag Ba’omer is a holiday break from that mourning. But even Natronai still knows nothing about that. Lag Ba’omer is first mentioned by Abraham Hayarchi of Provence (1155-1215) quoting Zerachiah Halevi  of Spain (1125-1186), who says he saw it in an older unnamed Spanish source.

It was not just Jews, however, who interrupted periods of mourning with a holiday break. Medieval Christians mourned Jesus’ impending death throughout Lent, for instance, but observed a day of celebration in the middle of it. By the time of Zerachiah Halevi (12th century), Jews had adopted that custom too, but connected it, conveniently, to the legend of the plague ending on the 33rd day.

Other customs followed: lighting bonfires, and playing with bows and arrows, for example. These too were not originally Jewish. They were May Day ceremonies that Jews adopted and applied to Jewish time. In the 16th century, Sefardi Jews in Israel began visiting the grave of Shimon bar Yochai, the 2nd-century sage said to have written the Zohar. Visiting the graves of saints was commonplace among non-Jews in the area too, but again, the custom was reinterpreted with specifically Jewish meaning.

Lag Ba’omer thus collected one custom after another, some of them originally Jewish, others not – all of them efforts to give meaning to a day that people observed but were not sure why.

There is good reason to retain such days. They act as magnets, not just for customs and mythic explanations, but for channeling human aspiration at its best. At our best, we remember those who have died, honoring them by visiting their graves; at our best, we moderate our appetites in communal recollections of tragedy, but design similar occasions for communal celebration. At our best, we gather to celebrate greatness, and remind ourselves of what counts for greatness altogether: not military might, or worldly achievement (for instance) but learning (Rabbi Akiba’s students; then Shimon bar Yochai).

But what do we do in America, when Bar Yochai’s grave is far away; bows and arrows are childplay; and bonfires are impractical, impossible or even illegal. I take my cue from Maimonides, who did none of the above, but likened the Omer to our love affair with God. Remembering God from Pesach, we count the Omer as if anxiously numbering every day and hour in anticipation of being with God again on Shavuot.

Maimonides denied all personhood to God, but maintained, nonetheless, that God’s presence is real, patently at work whenever we know freedom and creativity, learning and loving.

This Lag Ba’omer, I will set aside routine, at least briefly. I will envision Akiba and the Zohar and maybe even a crackling outdoor fire reaching up to heaven to remind me of my rendezvous with God. I am never alone. I am part of eternity.

Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

Do Jews Believe In A Soul?

Do Jews believe in a soul?

The answer is, “Yes, yes, yes, and “sort-of.”

The “sort-of” arises within the welter of detail regarding the Levitical sacrifices, a system that allowed for different levels of giving depending on personal financial means. Those unable to afford costly animal sacrifices brought a grain offering. Rashi observes that the person offering it is called a nefesh – a word usually translated as “soul.” He wants to know why here, particularly, the Torah calls a “person” a nefesh.

The answer, he says, is that grain is offered expressly by the poor. Objectively speaking, it may not cost much, but for the poor it is so enormous a sacrifice that God says to those who offer it, “I consider it as if you have offered your very soul.”

So nefesh — literally, just “person” – implies, for Rashi, something more. It bespeaks the moral core of our being: the part that overcomes selfishness; the deeply-rooted sense that we must live up to responsibility, doing what we can, as best we can. We ourselves call such people “good souls.” They come through; you can count on them.

Does nefesh mean “soul” in this case? In a way; metaphorically, at least; “sort-of.”

It is the Zohar that provides us with the “yes, yes, and yes” – three affirmatives corresponding to three different biblical and rabbinic words for “soul,” from which the kabbalists deduce the lesson that the soul has three parts.

The first “yes” affirms the highest part of the soul, the n’shamah what we normally think of as the soul that preexists us and lives on after we die. It is non-material, purely spiritual, so scientific study can neither prove nor disprove it. Brain science may discover the electro-chemistry of how we work, but not of all we are. We sense something more, an inexplicable entity that animates the deepest wellsprings of the “self” we hope to become.

The n’shamah is that “something more,” an invitation to realize the Godlike embrace of morality, creativity, artistry and truth. Being unexplainable scientifically, it appears within us as a mysterious gift from without. Hence the idea of a n’shamah as “heaven-sent”: a glimpse of transcendence; purpose beyond our admittedly paltry – and, conceivably, petty — personal lives, dwarfed as they are by the infinitude of the universe. When the rest of us dies – body, brain, and all – the soul part called n’shamah is what we say lives on.

The second “yes” denotes the second part of the soul, the ru’ach. If the n’shamah is wholly other, utterly ethereal and divine, the part of God that reaches down and pulls us up to greater moral, artistic, and intellectual stature, the ru’ach is the part of human nature that reaches up receptively to embrace the wonder it all.

Even people who disbelieve in the eternality of a separate and non-material n’shamah can appreciate the potential for nobility that lies miraculously within them. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, the brilliant but dissolute Sydney Carton sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save somebody else. When he famously declares, “It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” he is (Jews would say) acknowledging the upward aspiration of his ru’ach.

The final “yes” returns to the nefesh, the part of the soul that is actually embodied. Even our bodies are sacred, Judaism says. Torture, enslavement, corporal punishment – we know these to be wrong, because human beings are more than conglomerations of bodily organs to be owned, used or abused. They are, simultaneously a nefesh – neither the n’shamah that is given from on high nor the ru’ach that reaches up from within, but our very earthly selves that must live with the financial loss engendered by the sacrifices we make.

This nefesh is Rashi’s “sort of.” But it is also a “yes,” because the earthly experience of loss comes with the satisfaction of reaching higher. And that is the nefesh talking.

The Shape of Time

Before cell phones, we bought paper calendars – things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is, after all. Time is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it?

Our calendars tell us, through the tacit decisions behind their organization.

That annual calendar you bought, for example, was organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each double page had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days – and numbers down one side corresponding to hours.

The whole point of this calendar was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments, as if life were a game in which the person who dies with the most appointments wins.

This “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent,” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because
“Time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible – funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So too is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour, is the same as any other. Time is empty, just an arbitrary number on the left side of the calendar page, demanding an appointment to give it value.

Not so the Jewish calendar, which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free. While secular calendars come empty, Jewish calendars come loaded: a changeable time of sunset (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading) and a plethora of days that come colored to show their importance. They are most certainly not all alike.

The most usual colored day is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name. the others, “Day One” “Day Two” and so on (in Hebrew), are just numbered upward to lead to Shabbat. The point of this calendar is not to list appointments (for which there is no room anyway) but to get to the colored days when appointments are actually prohibited!

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred; and reminds us that the fullness of life requires them both.

Most interesting is another colored day, that occurs each month: Rosh Chodesh, “the new moon.” When it falls mid-week, Rosh Chodesh is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month (of Shevat) coincides with Shabbat, allowing us to stop and give Rosh Chodesh its due.

Unlike those pocket secular calendars that are divided by weeks, Jewish calendars display whole months: each page begins with a Rosh Chodesh. Secular months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases. Jewish months are really lunar. New moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). But Talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognized that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work then, if they liked. And all Jews there thought enough of Rosh Chodesh to provide it with its own evening Kiddush. These are home observances, not public ones, and I wish we still had them.

Acknowledging the newness of every moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with Rosh Hashanah, but Rosh Hashanah is just one new moon of many. Every new moon invites us to turn over a new page in the calendar, the point being that we can simultaneously turn over a new page in our lives.

I love Rosh Hashanah’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for Rosh Hashanah to return. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next new moon, bid the awful month past a happy “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again.

Good God! In God’s Good Time

While awaiting his moment of truth with Esau, Jacob recollects God’s assurance, “I [God] will be good (eitiv) to you.” A few sentences later, he repeats that promise more emphatically. “I will surely be good (eitev heitiv) to you,” he remembers God saying. But what exactly is “God’s goodness”? The Rabbis’ answer is surprising.

It surfaces in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), a string of four benedictions, the first three of which thank God for feeding all creation, rebuilding Jerusalem, and providing the Land of Israel. These date from the first or second century C.E., when much of creation was starving, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and our Land was under Roman occupation. What could the Rabbis have been thinking when, after every meal, they thanked God for doing what God had clearly not yet done?

The answer comes in the fourth benediction, called “The One who is good and who does good” (Hatov v’hameitiv). It dates to about the same time, and comes with a story from the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) that was viciously suppressed and punished by the emperor Hadrian.

As the Talmud tells the tale, Hadrian prohibited the burial of Jews who had died in the uprising. When his successor finally permitted it, the blessing “Who is good and who does good” was composed. “‘Who is good’– because God kept their bodies from putrefying; ‘Who does good’ — because God eventually arranged for their burial.”

At stake is the classic Jewish belief in resurrection. We often hear that Judaism is a religion for “this world,” not the next one, but actually, the Rabbis insisted also on some sort of life after death – including bodily resurrection, but also a time to come and a messianic era. Interpreted broadly, “God’s goodness” is the guarantee that life does not stop when we breathe our last. Nor is the world doomed to remain as it is now. In ways we cannot imagine, both the world and we continue in a better time to come.

Elsewhere, the Rabbis consider blessings for good and bad tidings. For bad news, we say Baruch dayan ha’emet (“Blessed is the Judge of truth”) — the blessing used now when mourners’ rip their clothes (or a black ribbon) before a funeral. So bad news is an announcement of someone’s death. For good news, we say none other than Barukh hatov v’hameitiv (“Blessed is the One who is good and who does good”) – just the opposite, an affirmation that the bad news of death is not the end of the story. There is, as they say, a better world a-comin’.

So the fourth benediction in the Birkat Hamazon promises a messianic future.

Now we understand why the Rabbis had the temerity to say the first three benedictions also: true, in their day, not all the world was being fed, nor was Jerusalem rebuilt or the Land of Israel free. But they believed these things would come about, all in God’s good time.

What we need desperately is a renewed sense of “God’s good time.”         Children cannot imagine beyond tomorrow. Why do adults refuse to see beyond the grave? And why do we cut off the world’s potential at the myopic purview of our own personal stories? The human species is some 2 ½ million years old; our historical memory goes back only 4,000 years. What if we are only half way through the human saga, or not even that far along the way? God’s good time indeed!

And improvements in human history mount more rapidly as the tale continues. Only a hundred years ago, people in even the most advanced countries died from simple infections, cholera epidemics, and scarlet fever.

So I believe in progress, albeit slowly, haltingly, and with interruptions along the way. I believe in a messianic era, a world to come, and even life after death. On my good days, that may not matter much. On my bad days, that keeps me going.