Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Noah: Pathway to a Second Chance

I offered this sermon during Kol Nidre evening 5775 (Oct 3, 2014).


Fiddler on the Roof is coming back to Broadway this year. That’s good news because everybody should see it at least once. So get tickets for the little ones. There’s a classic scene in which Tevya is explaining how Jewish communities work. He says, “Of course, there was the time when he sold him a horse, but delivered a mule, but that’s all settled now. Now we live in simple peace and harmony and …”

“It was a horse,” interrupts one man. “It was a mule!” proclaims another. Horse! Mule! Horse! Mule!

“Tradition, tradition …”

Fiddler gets more credit for explaining Jewish culture than it probably deserves, but in this case, it gets it right. Judaism has never been monolithic. There’s hardly anything we all agree upon. And we know it!

Argumentation is embedded in Jewish culture. How else could we have a story where two individuals are discussing their synagogue’s minhag, their customary practices – in this case whether to stand up or sit down for the Shema – and one argues that we sit, while the other insists that we stand? So they sought out the oldest member of the synagogue, who explained that the arguing about whether we stand or sit, that is the tradition.

Which makes it surprising and somewhat perplexing that so many of us believe there is only one acceptable way to view the Torah … as God’s revealed word whose literal meaning we must obey … or not. In fact, even among those who believe that the Torah came directly from God, they’ve been arguing about what God meant for thousands of years.

There is, in Judaism, a body of literature called Midrash, a broad genre of Jewish intellectual creativity that began around the 2nd century BCE, perhaps 300 years after the Torah had been written down. Across the centuries, Jews have been questioning the Torah and engaging in some remarkably inventive thinking of their own that doesn’t rewrite the Torah but fills in blanks where parts of the stories seem to have been left out. American Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner teaches that our Jewish sages “did not write about scripture, they wrote with Scripture.” It didn’t bother them one iota that they were playing with sacred text. For them, it was a mitzvah to participate in the continuing creation of Torah. So long as they didn’t contradict what was already there, Torah text was fair game.

Midrash peers in between the words of Torah, and asks what elements of the story are hiding inside. Which brings me to a film that I imagine very few of you have seen: Noah, starring Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Russell Crowe. When Noah came out this past March, you may have thought it belonged to the same category of Bible films as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. It didn’t, and it doesn’t. Noah disappointed a lot of people who resented how far its film makers had strayed from the original story line. But they hadn’t, because their intention was never to just retell the biblical version. They were creating midrash. The writers, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, are two good Jewish boys. They’re not our “Mel Gibsons,” they weren’t interested in creating a “biblical epic.” They’d studied the Midrash on Noah, and they knew that Jews had a lot of lingering questions about the Flood story, answers which the ancient Midrash has played with, and a few of which they came up with on their own.

NoahI want to share with you some of the midrashim that Aronofsky and Handel used in their film. I want to do this, on Kol Nidre of all times, for two reasons. First, to demonstrate how Jewish thought only begins with the Torah, and that we limit our understanding of Judaism and, quite frankly, of life when we encounter nothing more of Jewish thought than Torah alone. Second, I want to show you the breadth and depth of Jewish learning, to encourage you to do some Jewish learning of your own, to not limit your Jewish knowledge to the stories you were told in childhood. Judaism is more fun than that, and it has so much more to say about life than is apparent in the Torah.

The story of Noah could be thought of as a simple one, like the one we share with our children, the one we represent by a big boat that has lots of smiling pairs of animals on it, a simple tale in which the wicked are removed from the earth and Creation is given a chance to start anew. But if we look closely at the language of Torah, at the words chosen to tell this story, and give ourselves permission to wonder why those words, why say it that way, we open up new possibilities for how we can understand Noah.

For example, in the very first verse of the Genesis Flood story, Noah is described as a man who was pure and righteous. And that would certainly help to explain how he got chosen to save the world. But the Torah adds an additional word, b’dorotav, which means “in his generation.” Why add that? If he was pure and righteous, isn’t that all that would matter? So we might wonder how b’dorotav changes the verse’s meaning. “Noah was pure and righteous in his generation.” Is that any different? A few questions come to mind? Like would Noah have been considered pure and righteous had he lived in another generation? Perhaps he was a thief, a murderer even, but compared to everybody else in his time – a time when God has decided human beings deserve to die – maybe Noah was still better than the rest. The best of a lot of bad choices. On the other hand, in such a corrupt world, perhaps it was even more difficult to be good than at another time. In a different era, Noah might have been a saint!

In the film, the writers play with this idea. There is no doubt that this Noah cares about the earth, cares about life, cares about his family, would care about others if there were any good people remaining. But this Noah you don’t push around. He’s not the jolly, bearded, Santa Claus-looking fella depicted in the dolls we give to our little ones. This Noah is a warrior. He knows how to wield a sword. And more than a little blood is shed by him in defense of his family and of the Ark. 20th century Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz writes that while Abraham had been singled out for a mission, “Noah was singled out for survival.” This is not your mother’s idea of “pure and righteous”!

God then instructs Noah to build an Ark. In simple readings of the text, we merely assume he gets the job done, even though, by the Torah’s measurements, it would have been longer than a football field. He had his three sons helping him, but one wonders what technology would have allowed the four of them to complete a project that big, how long would that have taken, and what were Noah’s neighbors doing while this boat was being built next door?

Enter the movie’s construction crew: Semyaza and Ramiel. Giant, transformer-like stone creatures, Aronofsky and Handel did not make them up. The Midrash tells us that Semyaza and Ramiel were celestial beings that had been charged by God with looking after the newly-created human race. According to the Book of Enoch, a collection of stories attributed to Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch and written down maybe 250 years after the Torah, these creatures – known as the Watchers, angels who consorted with humans and fathered the Nephilim who appear in Genesis just prior to the Flood story – the Watchers fell from grace and, as punishment for their behavior, God had them bound for seventy generations. In Noah, the Watchers appear as celestial light encrusted in prisons of stone. They ally with Noah against the evil hordes and assist him in building the Ark.

Now, if you were building an Ark, do you suppose you could keep it a secret for very long? Midrash tells us the Ark’s construction took 120 years, time to grow the lumber, harvest it, and then build the boat. In that time, we are told in a number of Jewish sources across the ages, that people would ask Team Noah what they were doing. When Noah would answer that they were making an Ark to save Creation from the immanent Flood, people would mock him, use vile language, and cause Noah to suffer violently at their hands. So when the movie assigns these giant Watchers to protect Noah, the writers weren’t the first to worry for Noah’s safety.

Then the rain begins. Gentle at first, but probably a wake-up call to the locals who might realize they could have spent the last 120 years building their own boats. They soon organize and attack Noah’s. The Midrash imagines that the lions and other wild animals emerged from the Ark to defend it. In the film, the Watchers protect the Ark. They are all killed while doing so and their celestial lights, formerly trapped in stone prisons, are redeemed by their service to God and to Creation, and rise to heaven where they are welcomed home.

This night of Kol Nidre returns each year to remind us that ours is a heritage in which no one is beyond redemption. Each of us retains the possibility of teshuvah, of returning to goodness and to our essential humanity. The Watchers’ release from their prisons of stone is very much in line with what our heritage has taught throughout the ages. Sci-fi? Definitely! Jewish? That too.

Back to the movie. It’s dark inside the Ark – windows aren’t such a good idea when flood waters are rising. The Genesis text tells us that God instructed Noah to build a tzohar in the Ark. Some translators assume that’s a skylight so that there’s some illumination. But a skylight during a deluge doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me. How ‘bout you? And besides, really bad storms make it pretty dark out anyway. The word tzohar is a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only one time in the entire Tanakh. So not only are we completely unsure as to what the word means, it’s a moment that’s ripe for midrash. Rashi, the most famous and highly-respected commentator of them all (he lived in 11th century France), wrote that some believe the tzohar was a window while others believe it was a wondrous, luminescent stone. Part of the reason for their fanciful thinking here is their agreement that a window would have been a pretty stupid idea. And part of it is that tzohar is similar to tzohorayim, the Hebrew word for afternoon, which may mean the word is less about an object and more about a form of light. In a bunch of midrashic collections, the rabbis imagine tzohar to be a magical stone that contains the very light of Creation, and that’s what the film makers gave to their Noah to brighten his dreary surroundings.

One of the reasons people are unhappy with this film is when Noah decides that God had him build the Ark in order to save the animals but not the humans. Noah believes that he and his family are to tend the Ark’s passengers and will live out their own lives after the Flood but are not themselves to reproduce. The story of human beings is to end with them.

But the message of the Flood story in Genesis seems to be one of second chances. And humankind is included. However, you and I have the benefit of knowing the story. Noah would not have had that advantage. The question is, did the writers violate the simple meaning of the biblical story by building their Noah as an end-of-times fatalist? Let’s take a look.

In the Torah, Noah is told that God is going “to put an end to all flesh.” Hineni mash-khee-tahm et ha’aretz … I will destroy them with the earth. God instructs Noah to take his family into the Ark, but never explicitly says they are to repopulate the earth. This close reading opens up the possibility that Noah thought his job was to build and to captain the Ark, but that he and his family would not survive the trip. The film’s writers asked a great question about Noah’s state of mind. And remember, as long as it doesn’t contradict what’s already written in the Torah, midrash frees us to imagine most anything we want in between the words. By the end of the story, Noah understands that humanity is also to be saved. But at this early point? Well, what would you have thought?

Once the Ark set sail, the animals had to be tended to. The film departs from Midrash here, but both respond to the question, “How could one family have possibly taken care of so many animals for all that time?” Time, by the way, was not forty days and forty nights, but a full year. And that’s actually clear in the biblical text. The rain fell for forty days and nights, but the floodwaters would take many more months to recede and it would be a full year before the Ark’s door would reopen and life on earth could begin again.

While on the Ark, the Midrash tells us that Noah and his family got no sleep because of all the time it took to care for the ship’s passengers. The film depicts Noah’s family, prior to departure, walking the decks waving some sort of herbal smoke machine, and putting the animals to sleep for the duration of the journey. Ancient midrash meets modern midrash. Considering what we know about bears hibernating in the wintertime, the film’s choice may be more believable than what the rabbis imagined. In either case, the question, “How did all those animals get fed?” gets asked by Torah readers because the Torah itself doesn’t say.

One more bit of Midrash for you. The Noah story doesn’t just end with a rainbow and a promise. It has a difficult ending to it, I think because life, even when we get happy endings, can change irrevocably and our happiness is sometimes tempered by the pain, loss, or defeat that someone must experience in order for us to succeed. Why do you suppose that even after the Ark had survived its journey, the animals had emerged and gone out to repopulate nature, and Noah’s family had also begun life anew, why does Noah plant grapes and drink himself into a stupor? Mind you, this wasn’t a one-day boozing; we’re talking a season of planting, harvesting, crushing and fermenting, followed by a formidable period of getting lacquered and hosed. Why?

Two possibilities. First, the movie suggests that Noah believes he failed in his mission. He thought he was to end the human race but was unable to do so. The second possibility appears in the Zohar, Judaism’s preeminent mystical text, which suggests that, upon emerging from the Ark, Noah looked around, saw the devastation which the Flood had caused, and confronted God, demanding to know why mercy could not have ruled the day and saved Creation. God responds with an anthropomorphic slap across the jaw, countering with, “Now you ask me such a question! Perhaps before the Flood, had you confronted Me then, it might have effected a rescue. But you took care only of your family. Too little, too late!” Noah was devastated. That could be why his own ship was three sheets to the wind.

Let me add a personal note. Five years ago, I journeyed on an ark of my own. When I disembarked, my eldest son was gone. Each day since 2009, I have struggled to live my life without my son Jonah in it – my world minus one. As difficult as that has been, I try to imagine what it must have been like for Noah. What of his brothers and sisters? His parents and grandparents? His friends? The millions who would receive no second chance? No wonder he tied one on. How do you live in the aftermath of that kind of indiscriminate, universal destruction?

Our ancestors’ questions for God were never just about the characters in the Torah. They were always trying to better understand what it means for us to be human and how we could best live our lives despite our own shortcomings and the difficulties each of us faces in merely striving to feed and shelter ourselves and those we love. Their questions from a thousand years ago, two thousand years, even three thousand years ago, are our questions too. They may not have known about electricity, plumbing or, but they knew about fear and illness and love and peace. Their stories may not have actually happened, but they are as true today as any story you or I will live.

All of these midrashim on Noah’s story demonstrate that Jewish knowledge has never been limited to the text of the Torah. Those Five Books, sacred as they are, merely comprise the starting point for the wealth of experience and wisdom our heritage has waiting for us. Each time we open one of those ancient books, within its pages we will find a mirror reflecting our own concerns, our own questions, our own dreams and hopes, right back at us.

That’s why Jews study. That’s why I believe you will love joining our community of learners here at Woodlands. Whether you study Talmud or Israel with me, a Taste of Judaism or Prayer with Rabbi Mara, the Midrash of Creation with Rav Julius Rabinowitz, or any other adult learning opportunity here at temple, the goal is not to acquire facts but to grow in spirit, not to become encyclopedic but empathetic. My teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman used to say that we study Jewish texts not just to meet our ancestors but to meet ourselves. It is such a valuable and worthwhile use of time.

Oh, and see the film. It’s a great lesson in Midrash, in the complexity of the human experience which our ancestors have reflected and written about in every year since the Torah got written down.

Avinu Malkeynu … it is Kol Nidre. The time to release ourselves from vows with You that we have not kept. But why shouldn’t we make a few new ones? It’s a New Year, after all. An excellent time to think about how we can strengthen and straighten our highest, noblest values. Learning a bit with You, God, even arguing with You, could be a great new direction in the year ahead. Ken y’hee ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

Closing words at the end of the service
The Torah tells us that Noah entered the Ark “with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.” As is typical for ancient texts, we know little of these women, which means that Midrash is waiting to happen. In this case, midrash from Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Noah’s stepdaughter, Ila, played by Emma Watson, speaks with a Noah who is drunk and in despair at what has become of the planet. The film makers have Ila teaching Noah that God has given us a world in which we are supposed to make choices. There will always be ambiguity and doubt. Nevertheless, we are in possession of mercy and love to assist us in making our choices. With the Ark, God gave humanity a second chance, a chance to live a good life on God’s earth. It is when Noah embraces this second chance and returns to life and to building goodness … that the sun comes out and the rainbow appears.

Avinu Malkeynu … Yours is a world that frequently offers us second chances. On this night of Kol Nidre, of release from vows, may we make a new vow. May we accept Your great gift of teshuvah, of turning, of redemption, of a second chance. And may we ask ourselves, “What will we do with that second chance? What are we doing with that second chance? Are we making certain that we use it for inscribing all of life into the Book of Life?

Science versus Religion?

I offered this sermon during Rosh Hashanah morning 5775 (Sep 25, 2014).


During the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, three men were to be executed by guillotine: a rabbi, a priest, and a rationalist skeptic.

The rabbi was the first to be marched up onto the platform. There, facing Madame Guillotine, he was asked if he had any last words. The rabbi recited the Shema and pleaded with God to save him. The executioner positioned the rabbi beneath the blade, placed the block above his neck, and pulled the lever that set the terrible instrument in motion. The heavy cleaver plunged downward, searing the air. But with a crack, just a few inches above the rabbi’s neck, the blade suddenly stopped. “It’s a miracle!” gasped the crowd, and the executioner had to agree. The rabbi was released.

Next in line was the priest. Asked if he had any last words, the priest cried out, “Our Father, who art in heaven, rescue me in my hour of need.” The executioner positioned the priest beneath the blade and pulled the lever. Again the blade flew downward, stopping one inch, and no more, short of its mark. “Another miracle.” the crowd called out, this time with discernible disappointment. And for a second time, the executioner released his victim.

Now it was the skeptic’s turn. “Any last words?” he was asked. But the skeptic wasn’t paying attention. He was staring intently at Madame G, and not until the executioner poked him in the ribs and the question was asked again did he reply, “Oh, I see your problem. You’ve got a blockage in the gear assembly right … there!”

Which may explain why there are fewer rationalist skeptics than true believers in the world today.

This is the beginning of my twentieth year at Woodlands. First, thanks for the job. I love this temple. Second, in all these years, I still feel like people who question, or who outright don’t believe in, God still shrink from letting me know. Folks, this is a Reform synagogue. You’ve had rabbis who don’t believe in God. I happen to be an agnostic. I try to be humble enough to never assert that I am somehow in possession of any real knowledge of the universe’s Creator.

Let me share with you a passage from “The Pittsburgh Platform,” a statement of guiding principles for Jewish life that was put together by America’s Reform rabbis back in 1885: “We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite, and in every mode, source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious system the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man. We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended amidst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.”

“God-idea.” I like these guys. They were well-educated and honest spiritual leaders who understood how little they understood about God. The term “God-idea” allowed them to articulate their desire and hope that there is a God, but also their refusal to assert that they indisputably knew anything about God.

Science&ReligionThere may or may not be a God in the universe. This cannot, and quite likely will not, ever be proved. That’s what faith is. You and I get to choose: believe in God, don’t believe in God. I say don’t even bother trying to substantiate your position. It’s a leap of faith. You may employ logic, even science, to stake out your position, including that of the atheist. But in the end, we’re just choosing the one we want.

That’s the simplest explanation I can offer you as to why science and religion are completely compatible. Neither can prove or disprove God. Theology can’t prove it, even if we use a lot of clever logic. And science can’t disprove it because God, by definition, is beyond the natural world. God would have been the Creator of the laws of physics; not bound by them. When creation started off with a Big Bang some fifteen billion years ago, that beginning was preceded by, astoundingly enough, nothing. No light, no space, no mass. And science doesn’t know what to do with that. Except to wonder and to be amazed. And that’s what religion is all about: wonder and amazement.

Did God create the universe? Who can say? Science starts its explanation of Creation after Creation’s already happened! There’s a number, Planck’s Constant it’s called, that identifies a moment which occurred one teeny-tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. That, according to the scientific community, is when the laws of quantum physics kicked in and anything intelligent can be said about creation. Everything before that is poetry and faith.

Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading will be the story of Creation. Now, that story was written down some 2500 years ago. Among the more recent conversations that are typically kept from me and Rabbi Mara is the one that goes like this: “The story of Creation as told in the book of Genesis is not true. It can’t be true. Science tells us the real story. Science teaches us the way Creation really went down.”

I’m okay with most of that reasoning. Again, I don’t know why you won’t talk to your clergy about this. We’re as steeped in science as you are. But there are some people here who will speak with me. Come join me in the Meeting Room some Wednesday evening or Sunday morning when I’m studying Torah with the seventh grade. Seventh graders are fearless. They say what’s on their mind. Somehow they haven’t yet learned to filter their honest thinking when in the presence of a rabbi.

These seventh graders, studying the Genesis account of Creation, are quick to notice a couple of things about the ancient storytellers. First, Creation doesn’t begin “in the beginning.” That’s a mistranslation you and I have been living with for far too long. Bereshit bara Elohim does not mean “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The correct translation is, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth.” And what does that say to my fearless seventh graders? It says that the authors of the Torah didn’t presume to know what there was “in the beginning.” Could have been something, could have been nothing. So they started in the middle, or perhaps a teeny-tiny fraction of a second after the beginning, just like every scientist does.

My seventh graders also noticed that the progression of created flora and fauna, which, in a Torah that was written down a very long time before Darwin did his work on the origin of the species, is remarkably similar to what Darwin would assert in the mid-1800s. These people were not scientists, but they weren’t dummies either. They intuited, without the evidence that would come later, that life on earth started simply and became more and more complex. Day one: a swirling mass of primordial matter. Day two: land and water aggregate. Day three: vegetation. Day four: sun, moon and stars (okay, I’ve got no idea why they placed these on the fourth day … ask my seventh graders). Day five: amphibious creatures and birds. Day six: land animals, large animals and, lastly, humankind. Remarkably similar to evolution, don’t you think?

What’s this mean for you and me? First, it may allow us to be more accepting of the Genesis account. As my seventh graders love to offer, “Maybe each of the six days of Creation was a lot longer than twenty-four hours.” Thirteenth-century commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban, might agree. He seems to have thought that since the sun, moon and stars weren’t created until the fourth day, there was no way that the first three could be described as happening in only twenty-four hours. The Ramban, it would appear, intuited the complexity of creating an entire universe, even if you’re God. Second, our ancestors were thoughtful about the origins of life. And Darwin, I think, would have been proud to have them as his students.

Even in the Talmud, written nearly two thousand years ago, our sages and rabbis readily admit they are not scientists, and that when new knowledge is discovered, they most willingly incorporated it not only into their world-view, but into their religious-view. For the Jewish sages, science and religion needed to be able to coexist.

This summer, the Union for Reform Judaism opened a new camp: 6 Points Science and Technology Academy. When I first learned about Sci-Tech at the 2013 URJ Biennial, I flipped. Not just because Paul Zaloom was onstage working his magic – or his science, rather – as he had done from 1992-1997 as the crazed but brilliant scientist Beakman in Beakman’s World. But also because the Sci-Tech Academy, he told us, would be a place where “scientific inquiry meets fun!” Campers would “explore what Judaism means to them—and how this complements their interests in science and technology.”

I knew I had to be there for this camp’s inaugural summer. Sci-Tech director Greg Kellner graciously accommodated my request, and this past June I found myself moving in for a week to The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts, Sci-Tech’s summer home. Through robotics, video game design, environmental science, and digital media, boys and girls in grades 5-10, including Woodlands’ science maniacs Jonathan Montague and Matthew Kaminskas, would not only explore these emergent technologies but they would be asked to consider how 21st century living – with its smartphones, the internet, GPS, wikipedia, text messaging, Netflix, cameras in our phones, and – all impact on how we live, on the soul and the spirit of how we live. In other words, where does religious life – for us, Jewish life – intersect with science and technology? And how might one inform the other?

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that seeks to bridge the scientific and religious worlds (and who I remember as a baseball-loving little boy who grew up here at Woodlands), writes of the ways in which people perceive how science and religion coexist (or not) in our world. His preference is that science and religion each inform the other so that both will not only thrive, but will do so with clarity, honesty and with integrity. If you’re thinking that only religion is in need of “clarity, honesty and integrity,” just remember who funds most of the scientific inquiry in our world: governments and the military. So spending some time reflecting on the ethics of science, the spirituality of science, could be very much worth the world’s while.

I’ll give you a few examples. DNA analysis. We not only possess the technology to identify the DNA profile of any human being, it’s rapidly becoming cheap enough and available enough that anybody can acquire such information. But what happens when you find out you carry a gene that might lead to breast cancer? Do you proactively remove a breast? What happens if you find out you carry a gene that might lead to abnormal pregnancy? Do you not get pregnant? And what about privacy issues? Insurance companies that obtain your DNA profile and deem you a poor risk? How about a potential employer doing the same?

Another example why pondering the soul of science may be worthwhile is driverless cars. To what standard do we hold a driverless car? The same as a new, teen-aged driver? Or something more rigorous? If driverless cars are programmed to obey the law, what about a situation where breaking the law would save someone’s life? And what if a situation calls not for saving a life but for ending one? What if five people are in danger of being hit by a driverless car, the car is able to sense the danger but determines that the only solution, the only way to save those five lives, is to veer off in a direction that would cause it to hit someone else, to deliberately end one life in order to save five? Is that ethical? Do we program the car to opt for intentional death in order to avoid unintentional death? And we’d best figure this out soon, because Zipcar is planning on using them as soon as they’re legal.

Religion is about ethics. Call it “obeying God,” if you will, but whether you live within a fundamentalist religious community where God’s commands are never questioned, or a liberal-progressive one where God’s role is always under discussion, religions seek to understand how you and I ought to behave in our day-to-day lives. In Judaism, the mitzvot regulate our daily behavior. Call it “doing God’s will,” but what it really is, is answering the question, “Why am I alive, and how ought I behave while I’m here?” Ethics are guidelines or rules for human behavior. Religion may gussy it up a bit, but it’s pretty much the same thing. While I would never give religion a veto, I do think it can sit at the table of scientific inquiry, serving as a voice of conscience, goading us toward moral clarity.

20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “We shall accomplish nothing at all if we divide our world and our life into two domains: one in which God’s command is paramount, the other governed by the laws of economics, politics, and the ‘simple self-assertion’ of the group. […] Stopping one’s ears so as not to hear the voice from above is breaking the connection between existence and the meaning of existence.”

What Buber’s words are saying to me is that our world needs an integration of the rational and the spiritual. One ought not censor the other, but the two should be in conversation, even in argument. Judaism is better for science having taught it something about the origins of life. And science is better for all the world’s religions applying pressure to be considering not just the material benefits, but the moral consequences, of knowledge gained and applied.

My time at the Sci-Tech Academy did not change the way I see the universe. It underscored and implemented what I’ve always felt to be valuable and really important to our lives: that ideas of the spirit and of the physical world talk to each other. The world is such a complicated place. We need all the help we can get to make some reasonable, value-laden sense of it all.

Avinu Malkeynu … when the founders of our nation decreed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that You should be cordoned off from the laboratories and research institutes. My great tenet of faith is that science and religion should spend lots of time talking to each other. So long as we don’t lose our heads about it (to bring back the imagery of Madame Guillotine), I believe our lives and Your universe will be better for our having imbued the act of human creativity with the same sense of tov, of the goodness, with which our Torah imagines that You imbued the entire universe.

Ken y’hee ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

Closing words at the end of the service
At the URJ Science and Technology Academy this summer, each morning began before breakfast with the Boker Big Bang. The camp gathered at an outdoor location, seated themselves close but not too close, because a daily experiment involving something that would either smoke, make dazzling arrays of color, or blow up, was about to take place.

Everyone from youngest to … rabbis … was excited about this moment. But we quickly learned that science is filled with many more failures than successes. And it soon became evident that the camp would need to embrace its duds as well as its kapows.

Rabbi Nathaniel Share, who led the New Orleans Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer from 1934-1974, taught the following: “Jewish tradition encourages us to strive to be failures. It does this by urging us to set standards of conduct for ourselves far higher than we can possibly attain. We will fall short. But what a glorious way to fail. For in failing to be as good as we might, we become better than we were.”

This is the spirit of our High Holy Days – set the bar as high as we possibly can, keep it in view for the entire year ahead. And when we fall short, applaud our efforts, the heights that we’ve achieved, and then return here, to this tent, next fall, and begin the whole, honorable process all over again.

Lighting Up the World

LighthouseIn this past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review, an article appeared on the subject of lighthouses. James Taylor used to sing about lighthouses: “I’m a lonely lighthouse, not a ship out in the night, watching the sea. She’s come halfway ’round the world to see the light and to stay away from me.”

But like rotary telephones, typewriters, and S&H Green Stamps, lighthouses are mostly no longer needed. I hadn’t actually realized that technology had overtaken them too. Apparently, GPS works so well on land and sea that boats no longer require visual cues to keep them away from dangers that lurk in the watery depths.

So, like trying to figure out what to do with the first Tappan Zee Bridge once the second gets built, communities must determine whether or not it’s economically feasible to keep decommissioned lighthouses standing. It can take millions of dollars to keep a lighthouse in working order. So unless there’s a way to monetize that, it’s unlikely such maintenance will survive budget-time scrutiny.

Some lighthouses have been turned into out-of-the-way bed and breakfast inns. Others have simply been preserved as museums. The rest are being torn down.

I’ll come back to lighthouses in a moment.

MtSinaiA couple of thousand years ago, our ancestors stood together at a mountain called Sinai and received a document, along with a charge for how to live, that would direct their lives for the next hundred generations. In this evening’s Torah reading, Nitzavim, we will hear about that moment, and about who it included, which may surprise a few of you. In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 29, we are told that every Israelite stood at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses carried down God’s Torah. What’s wonderful about this passage is that the moment was not one of privilege or status. While yes, Israel’s leaders are there – they kind of have to be if this people is going to have any chance of following the new book of rules – so is every other Israelite. Spouses, kids, out-of-town guests, and even those at the lowest rungs of antiquity’s social ladder: woodchoppers and water-drawers.

The light from a lighthouse acknowledges no social standing, no financial position, no political connection, no prejudicial bias. That light is for everyone, to help one and all steer clear of danger.

Nitzavim, this week’s Torah reading, is a lighthouse. It offers its gifts to anyone who wishes to partake. I think it’s the perfect text to begin our new year.

Woodlands Community Temple is a pretty special place. I don’t know that it’s dramatically different from many other special places – other synagogues, churches, mosques, bowling alleys, American Legion halls, community centers, or any other room that houses a group of people who are trying to do something to elevate the value and meaning of their lives (a tall order, to be sure, but not at all unachieveable) – but the social experiment of building community to make life better for one’s self, one’s family and one’s world, is not only noble, it’s needed. It’s not a particularly difficult task to care for one another, but we do manage to trip over our own feet quite a bit of the time.

Nevertheless, good things have come out of the lighthouses we call synagogues. We teach our children values by which we hope they will live. We remind ourselves of those same values and encourage one another to strengthen our resolve to live by them. And we shine our light on people and places outside of our synagogue – not to convert, but to embrace. Through social action – tikkun olam, g’milut hasadim – we lend a helping hand to others because this ancient document has been challenging us to do so.

This may be why we read this particular passage from Nitzavim a number of times each year. Our Confirmands will read these verses next spring during their Shavuot service of Confirmation. Why? Because we hope they will internalize the Torah’s message of common vision and action. We will read it on Yom Kippur morning, just two weeks from now. Why? Because its “lighthouse” concept of helping one another to ennoble our lives is the challenge of the High Holy Days. To be written for a blessing in the Book of Life is not something we seek only for ourselves, but for every inhabitant of this planet. That is the Jewish dream, one we renew each year in that tent.

Two brief stories.

One comes from an animated short entitled “Lighthouse.” It concerns a lighthouse whose light unexpectedly goes out. With a ship fast approaching, the keeper of the lighthouse, not knowing what else to do, runs downstairs with the goal of heading into town and appealing for help from his fellow villagers. But when he opens his front door, he finds them already arrived and, lanterns in hand, the entire village ascends the steps of the lighthouse to warn off the approaching ship.

A sweet, powerful little story that reminds us of the importance of being part of a community and of stepping forward when the need is great.

Woodlands Community TempleThe other story concerns the building of a synagogue. A long time ago, plans were drawn up for the design of the community’s new synagogue. At its dedication, everyone came and marveled at the building’s breathtaking beauty. It wasn’t long, however, before someone notice the building had no light. “Where are the lamps?” someone asked. “How will our new synagogue be lit?” The rabbi indicated a number of brackets that had been mounted on the walls at regular intervals throughout the building. He then presented each family with a lamp that they were to carry with them whenever they came to the synagogue. “When you are not here,” the rabbi said, “part of this synagogue will not be lit. When you remain at home, especially when our community needs you, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

I love this story! And while I doubt that our Board of Trustees would go for implementing it as policy, the metaphor has indeed been implemented. As with any community gathering, Woodlands is strengthened by the participation of many, by your participation. When we come, you and I are strengthened. When we come, our families are strengthened. When we step forward to join our community – in whatever activity it inaugurates – our lives are affected. And like those old lighthouses, when we do step forward and we shine our light, our wider community, maybe even the whole world, is affected as well.


The B’nai Mitzvah Legacy of 9/11

I imagine that for most of us, there is no story we have heard as many times as that of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their forty years of desert wandering, and subsequent entrance into the Promised Land. Each spring, we devote an entire evening around our dinner tables to retelling this story. And yet, we mostly do so in broad strokes. Rarely do we stop to consider what the Israelites ate throughout those four decades, what it was like to give birth and to rear children as homeless nomads, and (as mentioned in this evening’s Torah reading, Deut. 29:4) where they went shopping for new clothes:

“I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.”

charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandmentsAs far as this last question, the Torah tells us they didn’t. For the duration of their trip – all forty years of it – neither their clothes nor their shoes ever wore out. They must have had dramatically different manufacturing standards back then because I sure can’t get a shirt to stay free of pilling to save my life.

I doubt, of course, that we were meant to take this literally. That the Israelites were able to make the journey at all, that they managed to get out of Egypt, that they survived as a community during that period post-enslavement and pre-Holy Land, is even more miraculous than a well-preserved pair of chinos.

But it got me thinking about time, and about what changes, what wears down, or doesn’t wear down.

Forty years is a very human chunk of time. For a kid, it’s forever. For a forty-year old, it’s a recognition that time has passed but life is chock-full of promise and achievement. For a sixty-year old, it’s a mixed blessing. I’m fifty-seven. I find myself thinking about “forty years ago” quite a bit. I think about what my body could do forty years ago. I think about where my life’s adventures were unfolding forty years ago. And I think about where, forty years ago, I thought I’d be today. And where I thought the world would be today.

Truth is, we do wear out. Used to be my doctor hardly knew me. Now we finish each other’s jokes.

The other truth is, the world wears out too. Forty years ago, 1974, some of the big music hits included “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby,” Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died,” and Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.” Chinatown, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles were playing on the silver screen. And in the news, India had gotten the bomb, Patty Hearst was kidnapped, first-class postage went up to a dime, Ed Sullivan died, and Richard Nixon resigned.

More importantly, we’re still fighting wars, still struggling with racism and, more than most of us could ever have imagined, we’re confronting more and worse terrorism than the world has ever known.

911.5thAnniversaryThirteen years ago, hijacked commercial airliners brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Some 3000 human beings perished In New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on that day. And more in the years following, from illnesses contracted through contact with toxic materials, affecting not only survivors but responders as well.

America was, of course, deeply affected by the events of that day. Our economy was thrashed. Our airport security underwent a sea-change. And our insecurity about Muslims among us rose precipitously. Whether this is a momentary period of difficulty and challenge, or our world has been changed forever, who can tell? For right now, at least, terrorism seems far more possible to upend our lives than war.

Just about the only good that came out of 9/11 was America’s increased sympathy, now empathy, for Israel. Despite grumblings about Israel’s possible lack of proportional response this past summer, Americans now understand what it’s like to live under the spectre of having enemies who want you dead and are happy to rain down destruction not on soldiers but on civilians whenever they are able.

Thirteen years is an interesting length of Jewish time. Thirteen, of course, is when our children reach their traditional majority, when they are old enough to step up and fully integrate into their communities and to become full-fledged partners in building Jewish life. 9/11 is thirteen years old. I wonder if it has been fully integrated into our national consciousness, or what that integration would even mean. I think of Gettysburg and how the horror of that grisly battle has receded far into the memory banks of the American people. What we remember about Gettysburg is Abraham Lincoln’s stirring speech. What about Vietnam? Have we integrated that into our American lives? We make movies about it now; is that the indicator?

We think of thirteen-year olds as reaching a certain level of maturity. And we all know some who have and others who have not. Thirteen is kind of an arbitrary number but, for each of our kids, we celebrate then as if to say to them, “Wherever you are in your journey, we applaud what you have achieved thus far and we look forward to your continued growth.” For the American people, I imagine it’s a similar kind of idea. Some Americans still believe there are no decent Muslims in the world. Others of us remain open to building bridges wherever we can.

Our parashah this evening, Kee Tavo, recalls our most famous story, those forty years in which we matured from slave-children into free men and women. Our outer garments may not have changed, but our hearts and our minds most certainly did. On this 13th anniversary of 9/11, may we continue to learn both strength and compassion, so that we may protect all whom we love and, someday we pray, come to love even those from whom we must protect.

The rabbis-of-old taught that, 2000 years ago, when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and people wanted to know where God had been during destruction, and people wanted to know where God was now in their despair and grief, the rabbis told them God was with them — crying with them, mourning with them, and seeking comfort among them.

As we ponder our ancestors’ 40-year journey in the desert, a journey we are told was accompanied by God’s continuous presence, may we never despair. Even when life seems overwhelmed by difficulty, may we ever link arms with one another to insure that goodness never dies, may we be forever confident that God has not abandoned us and that, indeed, it is when we reach for one another that we find God. And in so doing, may we discover, like our desert forebears, that when life’s harshness includes persistent determination and love, not our outer garments nor our inner ones will ever wear out.


The Synagogue: A House, a Home, a Watering Hole

The JungleWell, summer’s over. I hope yours was a great one and that you did some really exciting things. I, you may have heard, had an unforgettably wonderful summer. Do you know what I did? That’s right! I went on a jungle safari. Ellen and I were looking for something different to fill our idle days of vacation, and when the idea of sharing our time-off with poisonous snakes and treacherous panthers came to mind, we simply could not resist. So there we were, donning pith helmets and mosquito netting, preparing to embark upon our very first jungle safari. As we prepared to enter the tropical forest, I turned to our guide and I asked him, “Is it true that jungle animals won’t harm you if you carry a torch?” “That depends,” replied our guide, “on how fast you carry it.”

Okay, so I didn’t really go on a safari this summer. But I did see my daughter Katie get married. And that was all the adventure I needed! The love that filled our hearts on that day – from family, from friends, from this community – reminded me just how beautiful an adventure life can be. To watch a child not only step into adulthood but do so with unbridled joy and unbounded confidence, I can’t imagine there could be any more satisfying moment for a parent.

But talk to me again when I’ve got grandchildren.


Pretty cool to attend your daughter’s wedding!

Still, while I haven’t really been thinking about safaris, I have been thinking about animals. Yes yes yes, it all began with Charlie. When that little dog entered my life four years ago, I began a journey of dumbfoundedness and awe at just how “human” a dog can be and, of course, how much this human can love a dog.

But it turns out that lots of animals display what we call “human qualities.” Animals may be far more emotional, thoughtful and socially bonded than we previously gave them credit for. Listen to this list, and note how many of these species exhibit qualities you and I might previously have reserved for ourselves.

Chimpanzees, for example, play peek-a-boo with each other. Crows can hold a grudge. Sandhill cranes mate for life. Albatrosses sometimes choose life-partners of the same gender. Meerkats practice killing scorpions with their young to teach them how to acquire food. Wolves grieve for their dead by seeking solitude. And bonobos (a smaller member of the chimp family) are inclined to share with strangers rather than fight for property.

It would seem that human beings don’t hold a monopoly on human behavior. And, of course, any dog owner will tell you that our dogs are sometimes better people than some people we know.

Which all leads to my point this evening, that most of us (probably all of us) need practice and help with our own human qualities. Like the meerkat, we too benefit from someone showing us the way.

Enter religion and the worship community.

The world is an enormous place. And in the digital age, one can access information from almost anywhere. Our own dystopian present already includes people who rarely move from in front of their computer and/or television screens, living their lives through the pixels of transmitted data and pictures. For many, the synagogue seems like an antiquated, irrelevant archaeological ruin.

But like the animal kingdom, human beings need one another. We need friendship, encouragement, support, laughter, guidance, and a thousand other bits and pieces of living that come from spending time with others. In synagogues, we find people who might be able to offer that.

Woodlands Comm Temple

Ark and Torah Scrolls @ Woodlands

Synagogues have three traditional names. Bet T’filah, house of prayer. Bet Midrash, house of learning. And Bet K’neset … house of communal gathering. While it is certainly possible to find elsewhere everything that a temple offers, houses of worship put so much of it in one place that it’s like a Wal-Mart for human bonding.

With prayer, learning and communal gathering, we who come together in our synagogue share with one another these really vital aspects of human existence. Prayer is the sharing of hope. Learning is the vigorous debate of what constitutes moral living. And communal gathering provides opportunities to join hands in helping others, and to join hands just for the fun of being together.

Life isn’t that different from a jungle safari. It’s really pretty out there. But it can get rough really fast. And a good guide who can tell you whether or not a torch is going to help … isn’t a bad idea.

Here at Woodlands, we try to bring the very best of prayer, of learning, and of communal gathering to our members. From oldest to youngest, we not only share in building this “safari” of ours, but we encourage one another to have a voice and to roll up our sleeves and to work together in building a better synagogue experience for us all.

Why? So that as many days as is humanly possible are filled with the kind of awe and friendship and love that an old rabbi’s daughter’s wedding day was.

John Foster Hall, early-20th century British music-hall and radio comedian, while in the guise of his clerical persona, The Reverend Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth, once quipped, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”

While we don’t actually know much of anything about why we are here, we seem to derive great benefit from wondering about that question, and coming up with workable responses that help us to live our lives.

It is the 11th of Elul. There are 19 days until Rosh Hashanah, when our annual review of how we answer the question, “Why am I here?” resumes. This year, may we come up with some great possibilities. And may we find comfort, joy and inspiration in doing so with our fellow congregants by our side.

Shabbat shalom,

Israel and the Palestinians: Piecing Together Peace

PromisedLandIn this week’s Torah parasha, Mass’ei, the Israelites are finishing up their forty years of desert wandering and are preparing to enter the Promised Land. “The Promised Land.” Promised by God, our tradition tells us. And further, we were not to share it with anybody else. Listen: “On the steppes of Moav, at the Jordan near Jericho, God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people … When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land. […] You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.’”

That was Numbers 33:50-53. This week’s Torah reading. We’ve been teaching this idea to one another for 2500 years! We taught it while we lived in ancient Israel. We taught it while we were in Exile, wandering across Europe, living in ghettos and enduring pogroms. And we still teach it, as a second commonwealth of Israel is now being built on that ancient land. The Torah is quite clear. Israel belongs to the Jewish people.

Islam’s Qur’an seems to be a bit less precise. In some passages, the Qur’an explicitly acknowledges that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Forever. But in other sections, the Holy Land has been turned over by God to the Muslim people who have been deemed more worthy than the Jews.1

The end result appears to be the same: Two peoples vying for the same parcel of land. Each one citing its ancient scripture as the prooftext for its claim.

And yet, no one is going anywhere. The Arabs have not succeeded in pushing the Jews into the sea. Nor have the Israelis succeeded in making the Palestinians go away. In my opinion, the sooner these neighbors realize that neither one is disappearing, that they’re either going to have to learn to live together or destroy each other, the sooner peace can become a real possibility.

You and I, watching the latest outbreak of violence from afar, shake our heads in disbelief and despair at how long this has been going on. Why, we ask, don’t they finally insist upon peace? Why is it that each time fighting breaks out, they kill each other until a cease-fire is declared, and then return to their corners, preparing for the inevitable renewal of violence somewhere down the road.

CoexistBut hold on, there are Israelis and Palestinians who believe in a path other than one littered with violence. Some are literally agitating for peace (more on that later), while others are building it through cooperative ventures on behalf of both peoples.

First there’s The Villages Group, Israelis and Palestinians who live near one another and who maintain daily contact via economic activity, sharing resources, and basic human relationships. The premise is a simple one: we either learn to live together, or we’ll die.

One of my favorite cooperative ventures was shared this week with me by young Maya over here. It’s a Facebook page entitled “Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies.” The premise is also a simple one. Take a picture of yourself with someone who’s of that other enthnicity, and post it on the Facebook page. Some of the pairs are best friends, some are lovers, and some have been married for decades. All of them believe not just in the possibility, but in the reality, of celebrating difference and opting for love.

Breaking the Impasse is a group comprised of some three hundred Israeli and Palestinian businesses that work together toward achieving a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict. They are a direct challenge to the philosophy of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Breaking the Impasse argues and advocates for deeper and broader investing in the occupied territories as one of the most important strategies for furthering peace in the region.

Then there are diseases and pests, which know no borders and threaten the well-being of all. Israel’s Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development has partnered with the Palestinian Ministry of Environmental Affairs to share in providing veterinary training and flora protection that benefit both peoples. That’s relationship-building at actual governmental levels!

And then there’s the violence. While Ellen was in Jerusalem these past three weeks, she was invited to a demonstration by a group called Lokhamim l’Shalom, Combatants for Peace, which consists of Israelis who have served as soldiers in the IDF and Palestinians who have taken part in the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom. In their mission statement, Combatants for Peace writes, “After brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon-sights, we have decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace.”

There are so many more organizations, both small-scale and large, grassroots and governmental, that are working to improve relations between these two enemies. Of course, for those involved in The Villages Group, Breaking the Impasse, Combatants for Peace and, don’t forget, Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies, they are not enemies. They refuse to be enemies. For these folks (and there aren’t nearly enough of them yet) have acknowledged that neighbors mustn’t destroy one another. Neighbors must take care of each other, must be civil to each other, must build bridges of peace with each other — for their own sakes, for the sake of their children, and for the sake of their nations.

Me? I don’t care that the Torah tells us the land is ours. What I think is that we’d best get about the business of sharing that land before it’s too late for everyone. God may indeed have told us, “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants [there].” But elsewhere in the Torah, God explicitly instructed, “It is not in the heavens … it is not beyond the sea … it is in your mouth and in your heart.” We decide how to live Torah, how to live Jewish life. What God may have said back then may even have been right back then. But it doesn’t work today. And it’s high time we figured out another way.

And in so doing, believe with perfect faith, that God will be just as happy and just as pleased.

Susan Sparks (a Baptist minister), Uzzer Usman (a Muslim) and Bob Alper (a Reform rabbi), are all comedians. When they perform together, the first thing the rabbi does is frisk the muslim. It’s a joke, see? It relaxes the audience. Everybody onstage and off knows something out of the ordinary, but very special, is happening. And it is special. In their own unique way, these three men and women are building relationships. And not just relationships but they’re building a new world. One where Jew and Christian and Muslim live peacefully, even lovingly, side-by-side.

May we soon see such a world. May we help to build such a world. May our children and our grandchildren come to take such a world … very much for granted.

1 “The Qur’an: Israel Is Not for the Jews,”

Of Rockets and Screaming Children

Note: I wrote this as the violence began escalating between Israel and Gaza. While events in the Middle East are dominating the news cycle, I didn’t want to abandon my excitement for speaking about camp and science and Jewish life. Nevertheless, I am cognizant of the tragedy that is unfolding. Ultimately (I hope), these words reflect my feelings about what’s going on 6000 miles away as well. Billy


This past December, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) held its biannual convention in San Diego. It offered the usual fare — incredible study sessions with great Jewish scholars, fantastic speeches by major national and international leaders, the best music the Reform movement has to offer, and terrific debates on issues of liberal Jewish import (including, at this convention, agitating for more research on the dangers of hydraulic fracking, support for paid sick leave, and advocacy for ending the 50-year-old US-Cuba embargo.

beakman.01But nothing could have surprised or thrilled me more when Beakman showed up on the Biennial stage. Beakman, you may recall from your 1990s television viewing, was (and still is!) an eccentric scientist who, Wikipedia tells us, “performs comical experiments and demonstrations to illustrate various scientific concepts from density to electricity and even flatulence.” What was he doing at the Biennial? He was unveiling the URJ’s brand-new Science and Technology Academy, a summer camp for Reform Jewish kids that would combine Jewish values with really cool science. I looked over at Ellen and said, “I have got to go there!”

I’d thought I was finished with summer camping. Five years as Machon and a counselor at GUCI (in Zionsville, Indiana), a summer as the Judaic Specialist at Camp Coleman (in Cleveland, Georgia) and, of course, 22 summers on rabbinic faculty at Kutz Camp (in Warwick, New York). Did I have one more week in me to go see what a Reform Jewish science camp would be like? You betcha!

6-points-logo.01So a few weeks ago, I packed my car and headed north, 45 minutes past Boston, to the site of the oldest boarding school in America, Governor’s Academy, established in 1763, before the United States declared its independence! 60 kids in grades 5-9 soon arrived, dividing themselves into four major areas of learning: robotics, video game design, digital media production, and environmental sciences. For three hours each day, they work with some really smart professionals who, assisted by some really smart counselors, equip the kids to get their hands dirty in real experiments and projects.

I was only interested in the Boker Big Bang, which takes place every morning before breakfast and, under the guise of inquiry and learning, blows things up. As far as I know, there’s no other URJ summer camp where that kind of stuff is going on! I had definitely picked the right place for my URJ camping swan song.

BokerBigBang.01But fun as it is to explode things and even to make weird, squishy chemical reactions, the big question on my mind is: Can math and science really serve as the premise and foundation for a Jewish summer camp, even a Reform Jewish summer camp? After all, how many 5th through 9th graders have told me, in gleeful defiance, that they no longer believe in God because they “believe in the Big Bang.” And although belief isn’t really supposed to be part of chemistry and biology, apparently they have sufficient faith in their science teachers to warrant thumbing their noses at their rabbi.

In my synagogue we don’t teach kids that the Six Days of Creation as described in Genesis is real. We’re pretty careful to let them know that Genesis is our story and not our history. We love this story, especially for the values it teaches us, but we don’t feel the need to accept it as fact in order to learn from it. The Torah was finished around 500 BCE, when science was really just getting started. So of course science and Torah are going to be at odds with each other. Science and science are at odds with each other. That’s how we learn. By testing ideas and sorting out which are true and which are not. So long as we’re open to discovering new truths from wherever they may arise, and we don’t beat people senseless for it, being “at odds” is a really helpful component of human relationship.

None other than Albert Einstein himself perceived the connections between Judaism and science. In the Winter 2010 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, William Berkson (“Einstein’s Religious Awakening”) quoted a 50-year-old Einstein as saying, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed….A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”, I think, understood that Judaism and science were not incompatible. While yes, there have been, and will always be, those who insist that the Torah is 100% accurate and true, the value of Judaism does not rely on that to be so. After all, in 500 BCE how much could the rabbis have known about cosmology? As recently as the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza got himself into a heap of trouble when he suggested that the Torah might not be 100% true. What’s remarkable is that, even though we Reform Jews are essentially Spinoza-followers, our kids all think their rabbis are fundamentalists. No matter what we tell them, they seem to default to a belief that we believe every word in the Torah is true. So when the time arrives, somewhere around the 5th through 9th grades, that they are no longer able to accept a fundamentalist view of Torah, they blame us for lying to them!

And that’s why I think a URJ Science and Technology Academy for 5th through 9th graders is such a magnificent thing. At the very moment when science undoes Judaism for many of them, Judaism now places math and science front and center, as if to say, “Where are you running to? Math and science are not foreign to Jewish thought. In fact, math and science fits the Jewish spiritual outlook beautifully!”

But will a Jewish camp founded on principles of math and science succeed? That we cannot yet tell. It’s going to be a few summers before Sci-Tech figures out how to truly synthesize Judaism and science. But the opportunities for such synthesis are not only abundant, they’re critical. And I suspect that, as Sci-Tech figures out some of the best ways to teach these ideas to our kids, we will bring a bunch of those strategies back home to our synagogues. Yes, yes, yes … of course I want to blow things up! Probably not in the sanctuary, though. Maybe only on the front lawn? But to develop new ways to convey these ideas to our kids – ideas of mystery and spirit that are wrapped in science’s study of how our world works – that would be important and beneficial to us all.

evolution.01In my synagogue, most of our students stick around through Confirmation and even Graduation. But some of them are asking these great questions about the impact of math and science on spirituality. If they don’t receive satisfying responses, Judaism will lose its relevance and they will leave. And it could be a very long time, if ever, before these kids (adults?) truly come back.

At the Sci-Tech Academy, rockets are flying through the air. The sounds of excitement and curiosity can be heard across the entire camp. Sadly, rockets are also flying through the air in Israel right now. While people are curious, about them to be sure, I doubt they’re terribly excited. Thus far, neither science nor religion have figured out a foolproof way to turn enemies into friends. Thus far, all attempts between Israelis and Palestinians have failed.

RocketFromGaza.01But failure is what most of science is all about. Thomas Alva Edison viewed failure as merely being 10,000 ways that don’t work. And back to work he would go. We mustn’t banish either religion or science simply because we’ve experienced failure. What we must do is to embrace the humility of one and the determination-in-the-face-of-failure of the other, and forever accept the challenges our world sets before us. From questions as big and elusive as understanding the origins of existence, to questions as big and elusive as how to finally bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, we must fearlessly persevere. And we mustn’t let anything — in the interest of scientific inquiry, in the interest of religious conviction, in the interest of peace — we mustn’t let anything deter us from continuing to try.

One of my favorite moments during my stay at Sci-Tech was when the camp director, Greg Kellner, gathered groups of kids to stand with him between an open Torah scroll and the just completed Sci-Tech Torah (which includes events both from Genesis and from secular scientific history). He spoke with the kids about his dreams for the kind of summer each one would have, a summer filled with fun and with learning, a summer filled with new friendships and new ideas, a summer filled with danger-free adventure and great memories that would last long after camp was over.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors …

SeedsOfPeace.02May the day soon arrive when the only rockets that fly overhead are the ones our children are squealing at with delight and laughter and a love for learning something new. Would that we could create such lives for all children everywhere, that their days and their nights would never be disturbed by the fear of explosions, or the destruction of their homes, or the disruption of their schooling. Utilizing all of the tools You have given us, God, may we soon fashion a world where kids feel like they’re living in one great big, wonderful Sci-Tech Academy all year long.


When Does Night Become Day?

in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday

Flag.05It was back in 2006 that Jay Leno observed what he called “positive news” from out of Israel. “Both sides are signing off on [President Bush’s] road map to peace,” Leno said. “The bad news is the Israelis think the road goes through the West Bank, Palestinians think it goes right through downtown Jerusalem.”

More recently, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced his support of the boycott against Israeli products. Hawking was apparently unaware that his speech computer was designed in Israel when he made the following statement to reporters, “I’m an antisemitic pig who loves rolling my wheelchair across my cat’s tail.”

What is it they say, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d be crying”? The news out of Israel these days isn’t so good. Not that it ever is. But I’m usually filled with much more hope. Silly me, I really thought that President Obama’s peace initiative via John Kerry would move genuine peace talks forward. But now, the only question people are asking seems to be whether the talks are dead or just dying.

And then, earlier just this week, we learned that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected J Street’s bid for membership. 50 organizations are represented in this coalition, and only 17 of them thought that adding J Street to their roster would be a good idea. So, in essence, they shut down the only really alternative voice the American Jewish community would have had in the conversation about Israel.

Here at Woodlands, we’ve met the leadership of J Street. These are not hysterical, unhinged people. They’re thoughtful, caring people who happen to think there are other ideas for how Israel might manufacture its future. This week’s vote is just another in a long string of refusals to engage with J Street’s points of view.

It’s just so sad because, while I happen to subscribe to much of what J Street thinks is the path ahead, I’m more saddened that the conversation can’t even take place. For quite a while now, American Jews have offered little to no room for debate on Israel. Remember the bumper sticker, “America: Love It or Leave It”? That’s what it seems is the only voice allowed when it comes to Israel.

Those who dissent from the party line are branded as traitors to Israel’s cause. Those who suggest that we might find a way to live alongside the Palestinians are labeled as accessories to murder. Those who read Ari Shavit’s The Promised Land and encounter, perhaps for the first time, his telling of a version of the 1948 War of Independence where Jews also play a role in pushing Palestinians off their lands, find themselves spurned for bastardizing history.

If America, great as this country is, has never been a perfect democracy, with perfect leadership, or an unblemished record of behavior, why would anyone presume that Israel would achieve that. We wanted it to, I get that. But after a while, I’d assumed we would all wake up from that little daydream. Israel, like America, like every other country, has its dirty laundry. It remains a great country. A bastion of democratic values, of compassionate governance both inside and outside its borders, and a petri dish for innovative industries and technologies. As I am proud of the United States, even with all its warts, I am also proud of Israel, which falls short much of the time as well.

There are great achievements there. We write about them every month in Makom, in the column we call, “Just Israel.” So many justice-oriented activities are going on there, many sponsored by the government, many taking place in spite of the government: Israeli and Palestinians scientists researching HIV together, a multi-denominational social action training program that empowers disparate groups to solve serious social problems together, greater recognition of the homosexual-lesbian family as full members of Israel’s social fabric, the Israeli Supreme Court ordering the end of illegal, coercive, and involuntary segregation on public buses, also ordering the Security Fence to be moved when it violates Palestinian rights, an Arab and an Israeli entering the Eurovision song competition together, the most terror-free period in Israeli history, 120 new Palestinian schools, 3 new Palestinian hospitals, 50 new Palestinian health clinics, a 1000 new miles of Palestinian roads and 850 new miles of Palestinian water pipes.

Things are changing there, to be sure. Not quickly enough. Not enough insistence, from both sides, that neighbors stop seeing each other as enemies and become much more resolute in building their neighborhood, their peaceful neighborhood, together.

I want to show you a video. It’s not about the Middle East. But it could be. It illustrates how you and I can go about our daily lives and miss seeing our family. The people in this film really are family. Shouldn’t Israelis and Palestinians see each other this way too?

The issues confronting Israel are not unique to that land. God knows, we have a long way to go before we can see (or perhaps stop seeing) people whose skin color isn’t white, whose sexual orientation isn’t straight, whose gender isn’t male, whose earning power isn’t affluent, and yes, who live in houses or apartments and not on the street. But Israel is a magnet for powerful emotion and opinion. And for you and me, it’s a place we wish would do as well, if not better, than our own country in resolving its social deficiencies.

The first step is learning how to talk to each other. John Kerry should never have to come home. The Israelis and Palestinians should build him a house right on the Green Line, and a day shouldn’t ever go by when they’re not meeting with him to work toward peace.

And you and I should learn how to speak to one another about Israel too. Just as J Street should have a seat at the table, we need to learn how to talk about these issues with each other without getting angry, without judging, without labeling one another as the enemy.

A good start has arrived to Woodlands. Part one of an exciting program that comes out of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “Engaging Israel,” has allowed a goodly number of us to talk about the values we believe should govern a Jewish state without getting lost in our highly-charged opinions about individual Israeli policies. Part two of “Engaging Israel” will begin next November. It’s the best conversation on Israel and her neighbors I’ve ever experienced. I hope you’ll join us.

The second step is to build real bridges, real partnerships, real peace. You and I probably can’t do that here, although we can bring Palestinian and Jewish singers to our bimah as a symbolic expression of our hope that such friendships can continue to be grown there as well.

It’s Israel’s 66th birthday. It’s still a miracle that a Jewish nation exists. And it always should. But it’s time for a new miracle. Jewish tradition asks, “How can one tell when night has ended and the new day has begun? Its answer: When you can look into the face of a stranger and see that he’s your friend.” May the Jewish people, wherever we reside, never cease reaching out and extending a hand of hope, of goodwill, and of peace.

Happy birthday, Israel. And many, many more.


This Shouldn’t Be Extraordinary

On Friday evening, February 28 (2014), something remarkable and beautiful happened on our bimah that I’ve never seen before. I hope I’ll see it many times again.

A Muslim, in particular a Palestinian Muslim, participated in our Shabbat Evening service. He didn’t just speak; he sang. But he didn’t just sing; he sang in Arabic. And he didn’t just sing in Arabic; he sang our ancient Hebrew prayers in Arabic.

peace dove hand symbol

Alaa Ali is a popular singer and songwriter who lives in Ramallah, outside of Jerusalem, across the Green Line in the West Bank. Alaa’s fans include countless Palestinians.

And me.

He came to us with his friend, Michael Ochs, who’s an American, Jewish singer and songwriter. Both are well-known: Alaa, in the West Bank and Gaza; Michael, here in the United States and Europe. Michael came to my synagogue last December, sharing his powerfully beautiful and moving liturgical compositions during our Shabbat Evening service. He spoke about his participation in a collaborative musical project with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, American and Norwegian songwriters called My Favorite Enemy. The group’s objective is to lovingly nurture change in the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians by modeling respectful and welcoming contact.

Michael called me a few weeks ago to tell me that Alaa was arriving here in America and would I like to bring the two of them to Woodlands. Yes, of course I would. Michael assumed that he and Alaa would present a “sermon in song,” speaking and singing in the pause between our prayers about their shared journey. But I asked Michael if he would ask Alaa to be part of our prayers. To not only join in the ancient recitations, but to add his own translated lines in Arabic.

We opened the evening with Hinei Mah Tov, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to sit together.” We sang a bit in Hebrew, and then Alaa taught us how to sing it in Arabic. It was spellbinding. We all knew the words in Hebrew, of course. And we all knew what the song is about. So when Alaa began singing it in Arabic, the prayer embedded in this simple tune began coming true. There we were, Jew and Arab, creating layers of harmony in languages which have been at war with each other seemingly forever.

With the Barekhu, our “call to worship,” Michael and Alaa sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their prayer this time did not include the actual words of the Barekhu, but its essence: We live in a world that never promises only success and well-being; it is in both the highs and the lows of experience that character and gratitude are formed, and that our challenge is to never despair of life’s goodness, no matter what it throws our way …

Thank You for the sorrow, the times I had to borrow
When my heart was hollow, all my tears and quarrels
Thank You for my madness, all my pain and sadness
Without it I would be less, without it I would not be as blessed*

And so the evening went on. 200 American Jews and one Palestinian Muslim. I am quite certain that, together, we learned what sacred community is really about.

Perhaps most powerful of all was the evening’s prayer for healing and wholeness. As always, we shared aloud the names of those about whom we are concerned. We even called it Mee Sheberakh, invoking “the One who blesses” to help us and our loved ones through these difficult times. But instead of singing the familiar melody, Alaa chanted a dozen lines in Arabic which Michael translated. In doing so, the two of them created a transcendent moment during which Alaa served as our spiritual guide and support, asking the One God to help us …

May you find peace from your pain
Before you feel the pain in your chest, my heart aches
If I could, I would carry your burden, I would carry your pain
How could I leave you to face this time alone
I will never leave you to suffer or face your pain alone
May you find peace from your pain

How many times have we sung the words of Mee Sheberakh? Always, it is among our most spiritual moments, among those points in our service when so many of us truly connect. We connect with something beyond us. We connect with each other. Through the prayer that Alaa and Michael offered to us, those connections seemed stronger than ever and, without uttering a single word about it, expanded our wishes for wholeness to every Israeli and Palestinian.

Michael and Alaa then led us in our prayer for peace, invoking the image of stones – these days, not a symbol of peace but of defiance, recalling so vividly the struggle and the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis. In their heartfelt plea, Alaa and Michael asked that we put down our stones and take one another’s hands instead …

So lay me down
Build a path
Walk on me as brothers
Let me be
Your common ground
Lay me down
And hold on to each other

As you might imagine, the evening’s worship was unforgettable. If ever we felt the tug of our tradition, pleading with us to embrace our neighbor in love, to beat swords into ploughshares, to look into our brother’s eyes and see the face of God, this was that moment.

Alla, Billy and Michael

Alla, Billy and Michael

Imagine! The words of the Shema, declaring the One God of the universe, and doing so in Arabic! This, I thought, is what the world’s religions must have intended when the clouds disperse and hearts can see clearly, and each understands that God wants us to care for one another.

A story is told of a young boy who, walking in the sand, picked up a handful of stones and took them home. Later, as he played quietly with the stones, his father took notice of one of them.

“Hand me that stone, my child.” Happily obliging, the boy watched as his father skillfully polished the stone into smooth planes and angles. In not too much time, he returned it to his son. The stone now glittered with brilliance, and the boy wondered at its splendor. He asked in astonishment, “How did you accomplish this?”

Replied his father, “I knew the hidden virtue of the stone. I knew its value, and I freed it from its coating of dross. Now the diamond can sparkle with its natural radiance.”

In our minds, it can be difficult to picture Jew and Arab side by side. For too many years, such pairings have produced dreadful results. And so, while many wait for peace to come, more have set such dreams aside.

But Michael Ochs and Alaa Ali are like expert lapidaries, with great knowledge of unearthing the ordinary and revealing the diamond within. These two friends make music, but so much more. They are builders of hope. The hope that Israeli and Palestinian can live side-by-side. The hope that Jew and Muslim can live side-by-side. And ultimately, the hope that all of humankind will finally learn to do same.

This was an extraordinary evening. We mingled cultures and religions, something that should not have to be extraordinary at all. Alaa and Michael showed us that this thing can be done, and that it can be done sensitively, and beautifully. We heard music that evoked our different cultures. And we shared in the shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary loveliness of their fusion. And perhaps more “shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary,” we heard music and words that brought together two religious traditions: Islam and Judaism. It was startling. It was also uplifting. After all, Judaism and Islam share so many common values about the beauty of, and the responsibility for, human life. Throughout this service, we affirmed all that we share. And we reinvigorated our shared hope that, as God is One, the men and women of this planet can also be one.

I hope you will consider creating such a Shabbat service of your own. The differences between us have not magically disappeared. They all remain. There is always time to argue, to hammer away at our people’s disparate dreams. But when there is so much we hold in common, ought we not find time for that as well?


For more information, visit Michael Ochs’ website (if it’s not live, check back in a day or two; it’s a brand-new website).

* lyrics used by permission

Who Is Perfect?

I can’t believe I missed it by one verse! I want to talk about Exodus 27:20, which turns out not to be from this week’s parashah, Terumah, but is the very 1st verse in next week’s parashah, Tetzaveh.

Verse 20 is part of God’s instructions to the Israelites for how to build the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle. “Bring clear oil of beaten olives,” Moses tells them on God’s behalf, “for kindling the Eternal Light.”

Beaten olives” the Torah tells us. Of course, how else can you get olive oil? You have to beat them. But our Sages couldn’t help seeing their own, often difficult, lives in this image. And it brought them comfort.

In the book of Jeremiah, olive trees are described as being y’feh p’ree to’ar … “beautiful with goodly fruit.” The Midrash teaches us that the olive is beaten, pressed, ground down, and only then does it produce its oil, which then gives rise to glowing, beautiful light.

And while people don’t have to be “ground down” in order to produce beauty, life kind of does that to us anyway.

At this time of year, we get colds. Some of us have to stay in bed for a while. And when we finally get better, we’re so happy to be out of bed, out of the house, and back living our lives. When I was laid up a few weeks back with my cold, I was not a very pretty thing. Just ask Ellen. I was coughing, and sneezing, and blowing my nose. And then there was, “Ellen, can you get me a cup of juice? Can you bring me some soup? Can you take my temperature?” I don’t think she thought I a very pretty thing either.

But here’s what’s worth noting. I am so happy to be back at temple. I am so happy to be able to help Ellen do things around the house again. I’m so happy to take Charlie for walks again. Life is better, because I’ve seen what it’s like the other way.

Beauty is something we feel we know, but it can change as our experiences change.

I want to share with you a beautiful video. It’s subject is beauty. The film makers use the word “perfect.”

They went looking for perfection, for beauty, and found it in what we, at first blush, might think an unexpected place. But what I love about this video is that, after about a minute, it dawns on us, “Of course. Why didn’t I notice that before?”

A pretty remarkable video, with a great lesson for us all: Beauty is everywhere, but sometimes we need a friend to help us see it.

In the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, “God created humanity in the Divine image. In the image of God were they created.” So important was it that we know our roots are sacred ones, that we were fashioned after none other than the Creator of the Universe, the Torah tells it to us twice. Even we have to be reminded that we’re beautiful.

Of course, looking like God is probably not a physical thing. The rabbis seem to think it has something to do with the way we act, the way we treat one another, whether or not we can look at a person whom others dismiss as unattractive and see the Divine image right there.

Here’s a different kind of beauty. The beauty of ideas. The beauty of imagination. Last summer, Tyler Levan walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after his bedtime and told them, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Tyler’s dad did what his father had done for him. He took out his monster spray and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Tyler’s parents then hugged him goodnight but Tyler stopped them, saying, “But how will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”

Just beautiful! Tyler somehow managed to make the unreal real and then unmake it again. That’s art! And except for the scary part, it’s beautiful.

So expect the unexpected, and watch life get really interesting. Try not to ever dismiss something when your inner voice says it’s not interested.

There’s so much beauty in this world, but because we seem to insist on wearing blinders, most of us are missing lots of it.

There’s some truth, I think, to the idea that the difficulties in life can make us more sensitive to the goodness and the loveliness that still remain. So next time you’re hurting, stay alert, something beautiful may be coming along next. And you may just be one of the very few who can see it.

Maybe that’s what it means when the Torah says we were created in the “Divine image.” Just as God stays pretty invisible, maybe there’s all this good stuff that’s invisible too because we shut ourselves off from it.

Perfection and beauty are everywhere. Let’s open our eyes and open our hearts, and celebrate it all!