Argue with the Torah!

Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish, and even more difficult being a teacher of Judaism.

What do I tell my Bar and Bat-Mitzvah students when we read in their Torah portions that the God we pray to washed away all of human and animal kind except for one family?  Or opened up the earth and swallowed not just rebels but their households?   Or didn’t just save the Israelites but made the Egyptian army get stuck in the mud so they would drown?  These portions can send our students running, and I must say it’s hard for me not to run too.

So, what do we do?  Well, we follow the advice of the author and Torah scholar George Robinson who said, “To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust.”  So, I ask my students questions such as: Who do you think wrote the Torah?  Why do you think the people were meant to be afraid of God?  What is the essence of the lesson we can take with us in a modern context, now hopefully evolved enough not to have to be frightened into action?  

You’d be surprised by the wisdom hiding in a 12 or 13 year-old’s mind. 🙂

Well, last Shabbat, we had a portion that is full of text that is easily loved.  After all, the ten commandments are there, the Shema the first paragraph of the V’ahavta are spoken, all pointing us in the direction of living spiritual, noble lives through a filter of love. 

And yet… at the end, we have something that trips me up, especially as a Universalist Rabbi.

Moses is speaking to the people of the many nations they are to defeat once they enter their promised land.  He says, “… and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them: you shall make no covenant with them, nor favor them; neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son.  For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their sacred trees, and burn their engraved images with fire.”

Now, I became a Rabbi through JSLI, and I chose to be a part of the Jewish Universalist movement because I believe deeply in the Universalist ideals.  On the UJUC website (www.ujuc.org) it states, “JU teaches that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth and that God equally chose all nations to be lights unto the world.  We reject the concept of a G-d who would choose among G-d’s children… JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.”

Imagine if today we, as Jews, entered a new land, completely destroyed all non-Jewish religious houses, shrines, and articles and burned it all to the ground.  What if we acted as the Torah suggests here, as if our religion was to be the only one and refused to spend even a tiny bit of energy finding ways to leave peacefully side by side with other religious practices?  What if we denied their right to exist? 

Doesn’t sound very Universalist, does it?

And what about the refusal of interfaith marriage?  Now, I know that many Jews still do not approve of interfaith marriage, but again, this directly goes against the doctrine of Jewish Universalism.  I was taught, and I believe with every fiber of my being, that when an interfaith couple seeks me to officiate their wedding, my role is not to judge them or tell them a set of requirements they must meet in order for me to be satisfied that the couple will be “Jewish enough.”  My job is to create the most loving, embracing, comfortable, meaningful Jewish experience I can for them.  My job is to create a sanctuary of sorts for the non-Jewish partner to explore his/her spirituality without fear within this Jewish experience. My job is to help both members of the couple leave my presence knowing that Judaism can be a nurturing, understanding, flexible framework, and that choosing to live their lives within that framework  could and should feel like falling into a large embrace.  My job is to honor and acknowledge the non-Jewish partner, not frightened him/her away with a judgmental, Rabbinic glance.

Anyone who has ever worked in a synagogue with interfaith families can tell you that very often, it is the non-Jewish parent who volunteers for the Chanukah party, runs the Purim Carnival, brings the family for Shabbat, and makes sure the child studies for her Bat-Mitzvah.  By making sure Judaism’s umbrella is large enough to cover all of us, Jewish or Jewishly curious or related to Jewish, we are better ensuring the survival of this most amazing peoplehood than if we shoo them away or treat them as secondary citizens.

I understand that in a different time, when the Jewish peoplehood was in its infancy, that we may have had to behave in a certain way to stay together.  But in this time in history, teaching that all religions have a place in this world is what I, and the Jewish Universalist movement, are all about.  The lesson of this Torah passage isn’t to fear or destroy the unfamiliar.  The lesson is to hold on to the beauty of our faith, share it with others, and learn from others with open hearts.  If Judaism has wisdom to offer, it will survive not out of fear, but out of its own merits.

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What the (bleep) is Tisha B’Av???

What is Tisha B’Av? Is it the birthday of the trees?

No, that’s Tu Bish’vat.  Sounds similar, I know.

Does it have something to do with the Torah?

No, that’s Shavuot, the other holiday that lands during summer vacation so kids don’t learn about it and adults don’t remember it.

So, what is it?

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning in remembrance of both destructions (which happened on the same date) of the two Ancient Temples in Jerusalem.  It has become a day of mourning for all kinds of tragedies (some of which also happened on the 9th of Av), from Jewish expulsion from England and Spain to the Holocaust to even the tragedies of 9/11. It is observed with chanting the Book of Lamentations to haunting descending musical motifs and with fasting. 

Tisha B’Av is not a happy holiday for sure. But I’m feeling kind of psyched for it.  Weird, right?  Well, here’s why…

I recently finished reading the book THIS IS REAL AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY UNPREPARED by Rabbi Alan Lew.  It’s a wonderful book about the Holy Days, and for Rabbi Lew, Tisha B’Av is the start of those days.  For this is not only a day to start facing our mortality and the loss of our ancient spiritual center.  This is also a day for letting go of attachment, for setting down our baggage, for embracing (rather than fighting) the impermanence of life, for facing the past and the future… the themes we encounter during the Holy Days.

When the Ancient Temples were destroyed, the Jewish people had no choice but to adapt and evolve.  Without a Temple for sacrifices, new methods of connecting to God had to be created.  If the Temples hadn’t been destroyed, there would be no private prayer, no synagogues, no Rabbis or Cantors, no personal relationships with God, no Jewish communities around the world.  Those things were all created out of necessity because of the destruction.  And for many of us, a return to the ancient sacrificial days is not what we are hoping for, so as much as we may mourn the loss of the old Temples, we also don’t necessarily yearn for their reconstruction.   This is why so many of us don’t fully observe Tisha B’Av… because we don’t want to return to the sacrificial cult.  Judaism has grown, changed, and evolved, and we like where it is going (thanks, by the way, to one of my teachers who posted a great article about this from Times of Israel.). 

There is even a theory out there that the creation story (yes THAT creation story) of the Torah was written DURING the Babylonian exile.  Imagine this: the people are without their Temple, the place they believed was the earthly resident for God, and they don’t know if it’s possible to reach that God anymore.  Their future as a peoplehood is at stake with no center for their religion.  So, what happens? Maybe a story was created… a story that connects the Jewish God to the creation of the universe itself.  With this story, if God, in fact made everything, God must be everywhere.  God must be Universal.  God must be able to find us wherever we are and live inside and beside us. The people no longer believed that they needed a tabernacle or a Temple to reach God.  With such a story, the people had the faith to carry on, and one of the most well-known pieces of spiritual literature may have been born because of destruction.

Once upon a time we built a house for God.   Now we build houses for ourselves.  What if they disappear as that one did? What if all of our expectations become knotted or broken? What if we lose our jobs or have to move to new neighborhoods or have to leave communities we love?  What if we are faced with illness?  What if our lives don’t turn out as planned?   What do we do then? 

Well, we do as our ancestors did.  We keep putting one foot in front of the other.  We find new ways to have as joyous as lives as possible.  We try to hold the memories of lost realities and lost people, places, and things in our hearts, but not allow those memories to keep us from attempting wholeness again.  We build new things.  We start new trends.  We bend, but we don’t break.

I have never really observed Tisha B’Av before, but I’m thinking that maybe this year is going to be the first year that I do.  Not to mourn the temples or to wish for the “good old days” but to celebrate the opportunities that come from letting go, from adapting, from obstacles becoming opportunities. I may fast not as an exercise of mourning but an exercise in clearing myself out (mind, body and soul) of my expectations, of my attachment to all of the “stuff” in my house (thank you George Carlin), to what my career should look like, to the house itself.  I will fast to remind myself that life keeps evolving, that I must be like water and move with the tides.  And I will fast as a reminder that if I have to lose some thing or even many things, if it is only the building, the stuff, and the career, but not those I love, I will be just fine.

Tisha B’Av is the “opening ceremony” for the Holy Days, for as we start this journey of turning and returning to who we know we could and should be, we must leave our “stuff” at the door.  We can only find our true selves, our inner peace, our most magnificent goodness, if we entertain the notion of the house falling down, and still finding light.

Join us for a Cool Shul Shabbat and an honoring of Tisha B’Av this Friday, August 12 at 6:30pm.  Click here for the evite:  http://evite.me/n1hGzQNUjg

Taking it out on the Little Guy

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Hope you all enjoy this commentary I offered during the Sim Shalom online Shabbat morning service.  Join me next time August 6 at 8:30am PST/11:30 EST by going to www.simshalom.com.


In the portion for this Shabbat, we have a king named Balak.  Balak is not too happy about the fact that the Israelites (who, by the way, are still in the wilderness heading toward the Promised Land) seem to be able to conquer whatever enemies they encounter.  Knowing the Israelites are protected by their God, Balak figures he needs some strong magic to defeat them, so he calls upon Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse them.

Now, Bilaam is not an Israelite, but he’s caught on to the power of their God and not only believes in that God but seems able to have full-fledged conversations with God.  So, when Balak sends messengers to ask Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam talks to God and says no.   But over time, they wear him down, and God says he can go as long as he only says and does what God tells him to.

So, off Bilaam goes with the king’s soldiers, riding on his donkey, when an angel of God stands in their way.   Apparently God decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all to let Bilaam hang with the king’s soldiers.   Perhaps God could sense that Bilaam’s allegiance was wavering.  The donkey can see this angel, and she stops in her tracks (yes, this is a girl donkey).  Bilaam is quite angry at the donkey because he can’t see the angel, so he beats and beats her.  And then, the donkey does the unexpected.  She speaks.  She says to her rider, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?  Look, I am the she-ass you have been riding all along until this day!  Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”  

Bilaam realizes the error of his ways, and with that, his eyes also open so he can see the angel of God too.  Now all is understood about what he must do.  In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them, naturally angering the king to no end.

As I was thinking about this portion, it occurred to me that it has a great deal in common with the Harry Potter story.  Once I chatted with my 14 year old (who knows all things Harry Potter), I was sure.

In Harry Potter, the king Balak is played by, of course, the evil Lord Voldemort.  Both of them are powerful.  Both of them act out of fear of their own deaths.  Both of them send others to do much of their dirty work.  God is represented by Dumbledore, the ever-wise, good, and powerful wizard who is lovingly protective of his “nation”, but will kick butt if he needs to, in spite of his peaceful soul.  Balak is Snape, the teacher who picks endlessly on Harry and whom no one quite knows if he is an instrument of Lord Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s until the very end.   The angel is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, who comes to the rescue only to those who believe in the Good and is no help to those who don’t. 

And who is the donkey?  Why, Harry Potter himself!  He is “ridden” constantly by his teacher Snape… cornered, accused, and threatened at every turn.  And why?  Because (at least while he’s young) he is easy prey for Snape’s anger, and because Harry has his mother’s eyes which are wide open to the Good while Snape’s are too confused to fully see. 

It’s easy to understand why fantastical stories such as this one in the Torah or Harry Potter are popular.  They have obvious sides of good and evil, and there are clear heroes for whom we can root.  But most intriguing are the middle-men, Bilaam and Snape, the ones we aren’t quite sure whether they are part of the light or part of the dark.

They are us.

None of us are Voldemort and none of us are Dumbledore.  None of us are Balak or God. We are all somewhere in between.  We all serve something that might be considered a “dark lord”.  It could be an abusive relationship, a nasty boss whom we feel we have to appease, our egos, or an addiction of some sort no matter how minor that addiction is, but we’ve all got something. However, we all serve light masters too… children who remind us who we really want to be, supportive spouses, mentors, parents, communities, faith structures, and friends.  We find ourselves battling with these two sides all the time, and often the negative voices seem to be louder than the positive.  And while we are arguing with those voices in our heads, we may find there is someone younger or smaller or weaker we can let out some of our frustrations on because we believe they won’t fight back.  Maybe we find ourselves being less than our best to an employee, or a waiter, or a less popular kid in class, or a bagger at the market…  Maybe we hurt the ones we love most, like our children or our spouses, because we know they will forgive us. 

But maybe, just maybe, those “little guys” are the guys who can see the Truth, who can see the angel, who can be heard by Fawkes.  We might not consider them enough, or give them enough respect to notice that they are staring straight into the eyes of an angel of God.  We miss the opportunity to learn from them because it appears they have nothing to teach. But let’s remember the idea that we should treat every human as if he/she was the Messiah, because if a Messiah comes, it might not appear as a king or as a president, but as some kind of quiet request.  The student.  The employee.  The waiter.  The homeless. 

We may not be sorcerers or wizards, but we all harness an enormous amount of power over each person we encounter every day.  Which master do we serve as we engage with each one?  Do we act from love or fear?  Let’s be truthful with ourselves, and when we catch ourselves operating from fear, let’s try to open our eyes, see the angel before us with a hand open-palmed in a gesture of “Stop!”, and try again from a place of love.

Are We Home Yet?

Close your eyes…

Oh, wait.  If you close your eyes you won’t be able to read this. Okay, read this, try to remember it, and then close your eyes.

Imagine you are standing before God.

Pause!  I heard that.  Those voices in your head that say no to the idea of God just spoke up.  Those knee-jerk reactions that tug at our hearts and minds and wrinkle our brows with dismissive contempt just woke up.  That intellectual side (you know, that side loves Bill Maher), just hollered that it’s silly to even entertain a notion such as God.  And that internal conflict recalling every zealot and extremist who has ever used the word “God” to his/her advantage just flared up.  Yes, they are all there.  Let’s acknowledge all of those voices and try to let them go.  Let’s put down that baggage and live lighter for a second.  I’m not going to tell you in this posting that God is “real” anyway, so relax and go back to the exercise…

Imagine you are standing before God.  Allow yourself to fully accept this Presence before you.  Don’t change the word God.  Stay with it for a moment.  Exist within belief.  Keep your eyes closed and don’t worry what God looks like.  Just sense this Energy as light and heat, warming your skin, illuminating your thoughts, activating every cell of your body.  This presence isn’t frightening or threatening, but comforting.  Free-fall into this promise of peace.

Now…

Are we “home”?

When we were in the womb, we were completely warm and supported without worry or care.  From the moments of our births, everything changed.  Now we are searching, fighting, wanting, needing, worried, stressed, busy, fearful, hungry (just to name a few!).  And as we grow up and become educated (or not), choose mates (or not), have children (or not), and live in one place (or another), we keep making choices following the human desire to make life better for ourselves. There is a constant seeking for more… maybe more money, maybe more love, maybe more peace, maybe more fight, but our commonality lives within “the more.”  But what are we really looking for?  Isn’t it, in some ways, to find home, wherever and whatever that it?  Aren’t we desperately hunting for a way to again be completely warm and supported without worry or care?  To return from where we came while still being alive?  To find an inner-understanding that feels like home.

In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, he says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams…  And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases. And that famous shortstop Odysseus also played this game, propelled around the world by the same dream, of returning home in the end, transformed by the journey and healed by it as well. And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different, and so are we… We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance— pushing forward to get back home.”

When I studied music, we talked about song and sonata form in the same way.  We hear a section of music and are pulled away from it to something other, and then we are returned to the familiar but we don’t experience it the same way the second time.  I recall my music professor saying, “It’s like going to college.  You leave for school, then come home for the summer.  You are standing in the exact same same room you stood in for 18 years of your life, but now it is totally different because of your experiences.”  In this scenario, home is oddly unsatisfying.

Maybe all of the running around we do in our lives is simply to find “home.”  We all know it doesn’t matter how much money we have or whether or not we have a wonderful marriage or even amazing children or an interesting, lucrative career.  We can have all of that and still be searching, searching, searching.  There is no perfect place to be home or perfect situation to call home.  Home is internal.  Home is a practice.

And this is where God come in.

Those of you who know me know I do not care whether or not God exists.  But I do believe that life is more three-dimensional when I can imagine that God is real.  When I can pretend to be standing before that Presence.  When I can feel that inner-knowing, and in that frame of mind, ask myself, “What’s next?” 

If, for a little while, we could truly believe in God, and truly connect with that energy, what would we think about ourselves?  Would we still judge ourselves so harshly?  How much compassion would we have for our spouses, our children, our parents, our enemies? What apologies would we realize we owe?  What would we regret saying or posting or suggesting? 

Discuss this with God.  Debate and argue with God if you must, but at least give yourself permission to “believe” for a minute or two.  Give yourself permission to define yourself and your surroundings as you believe a loving God would.  Give yourself permission to “go home.”

It doesn’t matter if God is real.

I’ll be searching for my way “home” this Friday at our Cool Shul Shabbat (click here for info) and again this Saturday morning online through Sim Shalom (click here to join in).  Come on by on Friday or visit the stream on Saturday.  I’d be honored to be a part of your journey toward home.

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image from: http://www.happynews.com/living/home-energy/home-energy-efficiency.htm

Rabbi on a Mountain Top?

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Judaism has been described as a “householder religion.”  What does that mean?  It means that although we have synagogues as centers, a great deal of Jewish expression takes place in the home.  Think about it.  What gives Judaism its flavor and makes it as much a cultural expression as a religious one?  It’s all of the traditions that live and breathe within the family walls.  From Shabbat candles on the dinner table to Chanukah candles in the chanukiah, from the ketubah hanging on the wall to the mezuzah hanging at a gentle angle on the door frame, from the braided challah on Friday night to the crunchy matzah on the seder plate, much of what we all do Jewishly has nothing to do with Temples or services or Rabbis.  They have to do with family.

In the book the Jew and the Lotus, it is suggested that this “householder” status is why Judaism has survived so many trials and tribulations.  No matter what was going on “out there,” whether families were being taken from their homes, or synagogues were destroyed, or wars were being fought… there was always Judaism taking place “in here.”  If there was a morsel of bread, there was a blessing.

Thinking of Judaism this way renews my desire to hold it close.  Even if we are not traditionally observant, every day holds opportunities to live more beautifully, more peacefully, more sumptuously, and Judaism in the home can be, if we allow it to be, the medium through which we reach these global goals.  As I told my students: It’s not that we are saying that only Jews are supposed to live this way, but for us, Judaism in how we remember to live this way.  So, if we choose a blessing to remind us to be thankful, then we we just used Judaism for the universal goal of gratitude.  If we choose candles to remind us to bring our personal sparks into the world, then we just used Judaism for the universal goal of contributing to the greater good.  If we eat matzah to remember to fight for those who are enslaved, then we used Judaism for the universal goal of working toward freeing those who are captive.  Now, I know we can be grateful, be global contributors, and be freedom fighters without Judaism, but keeping this householder religion near and dear makes it a little easier not to forget.

There is a challenge, though, that comes with this householder nature, especially for those of us who are teachers of this evolving tradition.  Rabbis don’t sit upon mountain tops contemplating the universe, nor do we live in seclusion, dedicating ourselves to the pursuits of knowledge and understanding.  We are men and women who are often married, often with children, paying bills, getting child care, doing the dishes, throwing in the laundry, and cursing when we realize the car won’t start.  We are “householder” Rabbis… not separate from our communities, but right in the middle of the storm beside them.

Part of me wishes we could go sit on a mountain top and contemplate God instead of running to the grocery store.  We’d get a step closer to spiritual mastery for sure.  But wouldn’t we lose our connection to the worries of our communities?  I’m glad that when one of our students got sick in class and threw up, I (as a parent) barely flinched at needing to clean it up (in fact, my co-teacher said Cool Shul’s slogan should be: Cool Shul… Where You’re Rabbi Will Clean Up Your Puke).  I’m glad that when I encounter families with issues with spouses or children, I understand both the pain and euphoria of those family relationships.  And you know what?  I may be a Rabbi, but I, too, find that days can pass, and in the flurry of busy-ness, I forget to plug into my householder religion.  So If you are struggling with finding time for spiritual expression, welcome to the club.  Me too.  I’m no different.  I’m the same trench as you are.

So, I’m starting to think this householder-religion-spiritual-leader thing may actually be more of an opportunity than an obstacle.  If Rabbis were to be above worldly struggles, dedicated completely to spiritual pursuits without the day-to-day complexities, then wouldn’t we be asking too much of all of you if we ask you to try to elevate to such a spiritual level while holding on to those day to day complexities?   Like home and job and traffic and finances and family?  But if Rabbis have to struggle right next to you, then maybe we can use our training and understanding to help discover with you the biggest spiritual secrets.  Such as how to live, love, and act more like the holiest versions of ourselves while… getting two cranky, tired kids washed, dressed, brushed, fed and out the door for school on a Monday morning after winter break.  When we have THAT answer, THEN we will have spiritual mastery!!!   🙂

I look forward to being in the trenches with you.

Please join Cool Shul for a Purim Shabbat celebration and pot-luck dinner this Friday, March 18 at One Roof in Venice, CA.

Click here for the evite: http://evite.me/y4v2D3qJb7

Click here for the sign-up for Friday for supplies needed for the homeless: http://www.signupgenius.com/go/30e0945afad2fa13-blessing

It is Only a Door

At Cool Shul’s Evening service for Rosh Hashanah, we imagined ourselves standing in front of a closed door.  We imagined that on the other side of that door was something or someone that would change our lives forever.  For the children, maybe they imagined a newly painted bedroom, or a new friend.  Maybe they saw a new baby brother or saw themselves getting ready to walk into their first day of school.  For the adults, perhaps they pictured the door to a new career or a new home or a long lost friend.

During these Holy Days, we have a door right in front of us, and we have to choose whether or not to walk through.  If we enter, we are going to have to take a good, hard look at ourselves.  We are going to ask ourselves to move forward with at least one little baby step toward our best selves.  We are going to search for the parts of our lives we may have lost along our ways.

But we have to walk through the door for anything to change, and it’s a little frightening to do so.  It is way easier to turn and run and leave it closed just as it is.

The poet, Adrienne Rich said, “Either you will go through this door or you will not go through.  If you go through, there is always the risk of remembering your name… The door itself makes no promises.  It is only a door.”

During Rosh Hashanah, my new community and I cracked that door open, peeked inside, and began brainstorming what first actions we could all take.  We shared the many ways we know we can improve ourselves, our relationships, and the world.  We made a commitment to at least start that process by Yom Kippur, and when we gather again next week we are going to share what we have accomplished so far.

If you weren’t with us for Rosh Hashanah (even if you aren’t Jewish!), I invite you also to close your eyes for a moment and imagine a door before you.  The door is closed tight, and you have to make the decision to reach out and turn that knob for it to open.  You can turn away and choose to keep the door closed, or you can face this fearful moment, hear the click of the latch, and face your true self.  And if you so choose, share with me what you discover.

I hope those of you without spiritual homes will join us for Yom Kippur as we continue along this spiritually renewing path.  Holding a mirror up to oneself is terrifying alone, but it’s easier together. Our services are short and sweet, in beautiful Temescal Canyon, family friendly, and we even have childcare.  Tickets are purchased by donation, and there is a place on the site to purchase tickets at our suggested donation price and also a place to name your own price at the bottom.

Sign up here: https://coolshulhihotx.eventbrite.com

Have a sweet and happy new year,
Cantor Diane

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