The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Will to Wonder

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5773/2012
Will to Wonder

Last year from this bima, I addressed a letter to my not-yet-born son. As a not-yet-parent, I raised anxieties and questions about how to parent, how to navigate the advice of self-appointed gurus of good parenting, as well as our culture’s pressure to overextend and overachieve. I ended with these words to my son: “When the time comes, I think we’ll be learning from you how to be parents. I have a feeling you’ll be a good teacher.”

In these 9&1/2 months that Levi has been with us, he has already taught us a great deal, and not just about surviving on minimal sleep. I want to share with you this morning one of the lessons I’ve learned from him.

While spending hours and hours with an infant, one has many opportunities to observe and reflect on human nature and behavior. What I’ve noticed so far is that the baseline human occupation is to feed an innate capacity for curiosity and awe -- a kind of will to wonder -- that, I am quite sure, is actually a basic human need. Yes, other needs intervene -- sleeping, eating, excreting -- but when those are satisfied, what’s left to do is explore and be amazed.

Jerry Seinfeld once asked, in reference to NASA’s moon landing which included a lunar rover car:
What the [heck] were they doing with a car on the...Moon? You're on the Moon already! Isn't that far enough?! There was no more male idea in the history of the Universe, than “why don't we fly up to the Moon and drive around.” That is the essence of male thinking right there.
~Jerry Seinfeld, 
I’m Telling You for the Last Time, 1998
Seinfeld is mostly right. But it isn’t just a male idea, it’s an essentially human impulse -- to explore uncharted frontiers, to be amazed by new discoveries, to be in awe of creation.

This is encouraging. We often hear about human nature being basically about coveting, lying, possessing, abusing, and controlling. And maybe that comes later in a child’s development -- stay tuned for next year’s parenting sermon... 

But it seems to me that this will to wonder is primary in our nature, and also uniquely human. At some point in our development, though, we -- that is, society, or adults -- we suppress the natural will to wonder. That suppression comes in various forms: Don’t touch! Keep out! Put that down! Turn that off!

Abraham Joshua Heschel diagnosed this spiritual ill in 1955:
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.
~God in Search of Man, 46
However, as right as Heschel is, civilized society requires some management of our will to wonder, along with our other impulses, in order to function. So in the service of social acceptability, and good manners, and private property, we suppress it. In order to cultivate discipline, and a commitment to success, hard work, and responsibility, we suppress it. We create routines -- or have routines created for us -- which also suppress our capacity for wonder. By young adulthood, it takes a lot more to make us feel awe. Which means we experience it far less often. That’s partly because, as we get older, there are fewer new things. When you’re a baby, everything is new! Imagine having raspberries for the first time -- how red they look, how sublime they taste! The feel of the fruit and seed on your lips, and between your teeth, and on your tongue... (Levi loves raspberries.) How often are you amazed by a new taste?

But even more than the infrequency of new experiences, what raises our wonder threshold most, is lack of use. Like a muscle that atrophies from inactivity, our capacity for wonder weakens when we don’t exercise it. So how can we learn to exercise it more often, and more deeply?

Granted, we can’t just pretend we live in the Garden of Eden, with all our bodily needs taken care of, and all the time in the world to water our unquenchable curiosity. 

Speaking of Eden, the story of Adam and Eve deciding against God’s will to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge rings even more true for me now, as a parent. Adam and Eve weren’t evil, they were just intensely curious! Of course they would try the one thing pointed out as off-limits -- that’s got to be the most interesting thing in the garden! That origin story is not about Original Sin -- it’s about Original Curiosity, the need to know, to learn, to explore, to be in awe of creation. And the banishment from Eden, with the punishment of labor -- in birth pains, for Eve, and in toiling for food, for Adam -- mirrors how we as an adult society suppress our children’s wonder by piling on duties, pressures, anxieties, rules, and expectations.

Like I said, we can’t completely wish away our responsibilities, and we wouldn’t want to if we could. So the question becomes, how do we continue cultivating our sense of wonder while still functioning in the world of rules and routines?

I have a few suggestions, first for how we think, and then for how we act.

We’ll have to start by reframing our thinking around the idea of routine and discipline. There’s a common fallacy that wonder and awe have to be spontaneous to be authentic. That’s the kind of thinking, incidentally, that leads “spiritual” people to avoid organized religion. In their view, religion imposes rules and routines on the free-flowing pursuit of transcendence and inspiration. That way of thinking works for infants, who find an opportunity to be amazed every time they blink. But for adults -- and here’s the paradigm shift that needs to happen -- discipline and routine are actually a necessary foundation for experiencing awe. We have to stretch and prep the canvas because we’re no longer the blank canvas of infancy.

Michael Chabon talked about this last April at an Aspen Writers Foundation event. He spoke about those moments of insight and inspiration when he feels not as if he’s writing, but as if he’s taking dictation. How do you create those moments? He asked. You can’t, directly. You never know when they’ll come. But you have to create the conditions without which they certainly won’t come. For him, that means having a discipline -- there’s that dreaded word again -- of daily writing. He sits down at the computer every day. But that’s not enough. He also unplugs from the internet. The constant pinging of the smartphone is a pretty sure guarantee that you will not transcend anything.

In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story about a dystopian socialist future, set in 2081. In the story, the State has taken equality to such a radical extreme, that there’s a Handicapper General to enforce it ruthlessly. In order to equalize people’s intelligence, those who are “above average” have to wear a radio ear piece at all times which buzzes every few minutes to prevent concentration and the formation of complex thoughts. What would Vonnegut think if he could see us, in 2012, dumbing ourselves down by being so attached to our constantly buzzing distraction devices!

Once we reorient our thinking, we can adjust how we act, to create more opportunities for wonder in our lives. Here are a few suggestions:

First: Unplug.
This is not a new recommendation. Even before there was an iPhone -- I know, it’s hard to believe there was a time before that -- there was Shabbat. A day of rest, a day to disconnect from the world of transaction, and to reconnect with the world of transcendence. Study after study on smartphones has found that constant access to information is changing our brain chemistry. If it’s not making us dumber, it’s at least making us more distracted, and less capable of deep conversation and thought. Even if it’s not Friday evening to Saturday, try a regular technology Shabbat in your own life.

This leads to my second suggestion: Develop a routine.
The irony of discipline is that it creates the backdrop for spontaneous insight and awe. I don’t mean this as a veiled soft sell to come to services more often, although that works for some, and might work for you. What I mean is to build into your schedule, along with all the meetings, appointments, ball games, and phone calls, a time for the sacred. If that word turns you off, then try a different one -- special, separate. Make that time noticeably different, either by refraining from the usual, or by engaging in activities that set it apart.

My third suggestion: Develop the right tools.
We are so focused on efficiency and the bottom line -- and we are generally good at that -- that we lose sight of the awe-inspiring. There are many ways to do this: 
Familiarize yourself with Jewish prayer, and pray on your own or with community on a regular basis. Go to yoga. Meditate. Make reading part of your routine. Get outdoors more often. (Of course, if you’re in Aspen, you’re probably the choir I’m preaching to on that one.) Try something new every week, or month.

These can be solitary or relationship-building activities. The important thing is that they be scheduled activities, valued and prioritized, and not dismissed because we’re resigned to being “too busy.” Another irony: When we lay this groundwork for experiencing wonder, then even in ordinary moments, in the totally mundane everydayness of our lives, the sense of awe that we’ve cultivated has the potential to light up and fill us with wonder.

I actually think the world would be a better place if more of us cultivated our capacity for wonder. We’d be more at peace with ourselves, and more in touch with each other. We would also be better able to address the challenges in our lives and in the broader world from a place of resoluteness and wholeness, instead of the constant state of partial attention in which we live -- or, not live so much as get by.

Reishit chochma yir’at Adonai / The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Eternal,” says Psalm 111 (v. 10). We are most in touch with ourselves, and most aware of our place in the universe -- we are most fully human! -- when we tap into our primal need to feel awe, to experience wonder, to marvel at the miracles in every moment, and at the most awesome gift of all, that of simply being alive.

If all else fails, then spend some time with an infant in this new year. It may be exhausting, but if you pay attention, it will teach you the wisdom of Einstein, who said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

May 5773 find us all more aware of the miracles unfolding all around us, and more alive.  

Shana tova.

Responsibility, Humility, Gratitude (Kol Nidre sermon)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation 
Kol Nidre 5773/2012
Responsibility, Humility, Gratitude

“I have come to report,” said Tevye the carpenter to the funeral director, “that my wife has died, and I wish to make arrangements for her burial.” 
“But how can that be?” asked the funeral director. “We buried your wife two years ago.”
“Oh, that was my first wife,” said Tevye, “and now my second wife, too, has died.”
“Pardon me,” said the funeral director, “I didn’t know you had remarried. Mazel tov!”
~adapted from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore
ed. Nathan Ausubel, p. 301

It’s a somewhat dark and uncomfortable joke, in the long Jewish tradition of laughter through tears. The inept funeral director becomes the punchline. Or, if we can be more generous, he’s making an attempt, however feeble, to find some joy in grief.

I imagine we can all relate to one or both characters in this little tale. One who experiences loss after loss; the other, faced with the bereaved, tongue-tied at how to respond.

We humans have always struggled to understand suffering, grief, loss, mortality; we ache to know why -- Why me? Why this innocent person? Why do I deserve this? Why would God allow this to happen?

Philosophers and theologians give this aching a name: the Problem of Evil. It goes like this: 
If God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, then how can there be evil in the world? So either one of these premises is wrong -- and God is not all three -- or there’s something wrong with how we define “evil,” as in, perhaps what we call evil is part of God’s grand, mysterious plan for good.

Jewish tradition grapples with this problem, too. In my summer course, we studied several biblical approaches, two of which I’ll comment on today. Job and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) offer different responses to this problem of evil, to the question why bad things happen to good people, and how to live in response.

Job is probably the most famous of the Bible’s approaches to this question. Told as a fable, it’s a story of a righteous man who becomes a guinea pig in an argument between God and The Accuser. “Sure, he’s pious,” says the Accuser in the divine assembly -- “He lives a blessed, happy, wealthy life! Take that away, and he’ll curse You, God.”

Stunningly, the God of this tale allows the test to proceed. Through a series of catastrophes, Job’s children are killed or murdered, his fortune taken, his livestock stolen or slaughtered, his entire body afflicted with a burning skin rash. And Job doesn’t curse or reject God. But he does question God, and he calls God to account for what befell him. “Indeed, I would speak to the Almighty,” he says. “I insist on arguing with God” (Job 13:3).

In a misguided effort to comfort him, Job’s friends offer him a lengthy theology lesson -- just what a grieving person wants to hear. They utter such gems as, “Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed?” (Job 4:7). “Will God pervert the right? Will the Almighty pervert justice? If your children sinned against Him, He dispatched them for their crime” (Job 8:3).

In other words, if some ill befalls you, you must have done something to deserve it. This distasteful theology is alive and well today, in some corners of the Jewish and broader world, and even in our High Holiday prayers. It echoes the early biblical view that obedience is rewarded, and wickedness punished, in the here and now. But most of us, myself included, can’t stomach this view. It leads to such detestable conclusions as, the Holocaust happened because Jews disobeyed God.

As it turns out, the God of Job also dislikes this simplistic theology. After Job’s so-called friends waste their breath trying to convince him that he must deserve his misery, God finally intervenes. First, God rebuts Job’s accusations:
Then Adonai answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: Who is this who darkens counsel, Speaking without knowledge? ...I will ask and you will inform Me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. (Job 38:1-4)
God puts Job and us in our place by contrasting us -- small, mortal, limited -- with the infinite mystery of the universe. Thereafter, Job does teshuva. He recants and repents, turning to God’s wisdom.

As the Book of Job concludes, we learn that God is angry at all of Job’s two-bit theology-peddling friends. It is Job, and only Job, who has acted rightly and spoken rightly of God. God rewards Job and restores his wealth because of both of Job’s reactions: initially, Job’s demand for an explanation of the misery that befell him from a God who claims to rule in justice and mercy; and second, Job’s admission of ignorance when facing the Eternal Creator. Job maintained his integrity and humanity by reacting in both of these two ways. The lesson for us is to strive for those two ideals: responsibility, on the one hand, to take a stand when the universe operates unjustly; and humility, on the other hand, to acknowledge that we can never have all the answers, or be fully in control.

If those were the only two attributes -- responsibility and humility -- for us to strive to nurture in ourselves, we’d be missing out on a vital element of the human condition: joy. 

And so enter Kohelet, a book whose very inclusion in the Bible the Rabbis questioned, because of its radical worldview. Kohelet looks out on the world, and observes. Unlike Job’s friends -- who insist simplistically and naively that the innocent flourish while the wicked suffer; and unlike even Job, who sees the injustice in the world, and stands up against a willful deity to demand an accounting -- unlike both of them, Kohelet sees the injustice in the world, but responds with utter resignation. “If you see in a province,” Kohelet says, “oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and right, don’t wonder at the matter” (Koh 5:7). And furthermore:
I have also observed under the sun that The race is not won by the swift, Nor the battle by the valiant; Nor is bread won by the wise, Nor wealth by the intelligent, Nor favor by the learned. For the time of mishap comes to all. (Koh 9:11)
Anyone can watch the news today, or observe one’s own family and circle of friends, and see the plain truth of Kohelet’s observation. But Kohelet meets this reality with resignation. “The Problem of Evil? Sure, I see it. So now what?” Kohelet’s solution is a recurring theme of the book:
Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy... Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun — all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. (Koh 9:7-9)
More famously: eat, drink, and be merry. The message is about making the best out of the hand you’re dealt. Some critics of Kohelet claim that it advocates hedonism, the selfish pursuit of pleasure. While merriment can cross the line into self-indulgence, there is a sacred aspect to joy as well.

A story to explain what I mean: One of the rites of passage of all Hebrew Union College rabbinic students is the Modern Jewish Thought course with Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz. Now in his late 80s, he is a giant of Jewish theology, one of the most important and prolific voices of the 20th century, and today. For our final exam, our task was to come prepared as a class to ask him our burning questions. Since we had covered the Problem of Evil during the semester, we asked him: In your opinion, what is the most compelling response to the Problem of Evil? We thought he would rattle off his preferred theology, some kind of intellectual answer. But he said: “Being grateful everyday for my health.”

This was truly a great teacher at work: we expected a theological solution, he gave us an experiential truth. Enjoyment is holy when it acknowledges blessedness, when it’s tethered to gratitude.

Responsibility, humility, gratitude -- three lessons of Job and Kohelet, three ingredients for living a balanced human life even in the face of uncertainty, loss, and pain.

*   *   *

A few months ago, I got a call from Hospice of the Valley. A local woman, whom I’ll call Sarah, had survived cancer for a few years, but now she’d reached a point where she couldn’t fight it anymore. Surgeons had removed as much of the tumor as they could, but it grew back aggressively, within weeks. The family wanted a rabbi to meet with her, as she neared the end, to start making plans -- the kind of plans about which all of us would prefer to stay in blissful ignorance, but that we must all face, someday.

I met with her twice, just before she died. Even in those last days, as weak and frail as her body was, she still had a glimmer in her eye, and managed a gentle crack about how young I look, for a rabbi. Sarah’s two adult sons were there with her, and it was in their presence, I realized, that this three-part lesson of our tradition was exemplified -- responsibility, humility, and gratitude.

They felt responsible. 
Both sons had taken significant time off work to be Sarah’s full-time caregivers alongside the hospice nurses. They wanted to make sure personally that their mother was cared for at the end as deeply as only they could do. They wanted to do their part to ease her pain. They told me: “Our mom taught us by example that you do everything you can to take care of your family. That’s how she treated us. How could we not be here to do the same for her?”

They were humble.
They didn’t pretend that they could fix anything. Prayer and medical science had done all they could toward a cure. Now was the time for comfort, and a deeper healing. They accepted the mystery of disease, mortality, and pain heroically and hopefully.

They were grateful.
They recalled happy and funny memories, stories of sibling rivalries, inside jokes, all the special stuff of family. They showed me a picture of their mother, only a few months before the end, dancing with abandon in her living room. It exhausted her, what with the chemo, but she had to dance, shout, smile, and clap. Her sons gave thanks for the joy they shared with her. The younger son, who was engaged, got married in a civil ceremony at Sarah’s bedside. How thankful they all were that Sarah could witness that celebration.

Responsibility, humility, gratitude.

Responsibility means choosing life, love, relationship -- even in the face of death and loss. It means avoiding the resignation of Kohelet, and not letting the inevitability of suffering numb us to the pain of the sufferer, or distract us from our duty to help soften it.

Humility means cultivating the honest humanity of Job, to know how much we don’t know. It means accepting that bad things will happen to the best of us, to the least deserving, to those we love the most, and we will never understand why.

Gratitude means giving thanks for blessings when we have them, for health and family, friends and community. It means cherishing moments of joy, and taking the good with the bad, whatever may come.

In 5773:

When confronted with the mystery of why bad things befall good people, may we be humble enough to say, I don’t know.

When we face suffering that can be prevented or alleviated, may we feel responsible enough to say, I must act. 

And when we find ourselves lucky enough to eat, drink, and rejoice, even for fleeting moments, may we feel grateful enough to say, Thank you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Jewish Party? (Rosh Hashanah morning sermon)

Rabbi David Segal, Aspen Jewish Congregation
17 September 2012
Wheeler Opera House

The Jewish Party?

“Ribono shel olam,” they both began. Two rabbis, in two prayers, offering ancient Hebrew words, before two national political conventions. One an invocation, one a benediction. One by an Orthodox rabbi; the other, a Conservative Rabbi.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik,  Modern Orthodox rabbi of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun of Manhattan, offered a prominent invocation at the Republican Convention in Tampa. Citing the Torah verse that is also engraved on the Liberty Bell -- u-kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha / Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof (Lev 25:10) -- Rabbi Soloveichik highlighted the divine source of our freedom: “...our liberties are Your gift, God, not that of government, and...we are endowed with these rights by You, our Creator, not by mortal man.”

He asked our Merciful Father to bestow blessing and guidance upon Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and our armed forces; he asked for protection and shelter upon Gulf Coast residents in the path of the hurricane. He closed by reaffirming America’s “dedication to the principle of God-gifted liberty...a beacon of faith and freedom for generations to come.”

Rabbi David Wolpe, Conservative Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, emphasized different themes in his prayer at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. After mentioning freedom -- as well as resourcefulness, creativity, and compassion -- Rabbi Wolpe cited a phrase not from the Torah, but from the Nevi’im, out of the Prophet Isaiah’s call to justice: shiftu yatom, rivu almanah / defend the orphan and fight on behalf of the widow (Isaiah 1:17). He highlighted not liberty, as much as a communitarian spirit: “...You have taught us that we must count on one another; that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel on the way to that sanctified and cherished land...did not walk through the wilderness alone.”

Wolpe asked the Merciful one to make us “more understanding and tolerant of others...” He concluded: “May our souls be enlarged by together...our nation...will become more passionate, more purposeful...through the warmth of your embrace and the extraordinary power, dear God, of your love.”

The former invoked the Creator of Freedom, the God who gives us inalienable liberty. The latter called upon the Divine Word of the Prophets, the God who guides us to care for the vulnerable and marginalized. Both probably served their convention’s purpose. And let me say up front the point I am working toward in the end: both rabbis made interpretive choices in how they characterized our God and tradition, and only taken together do they offer a complete picture of the Jewish tradition, and the will of Ribono shel Olam, the Almighty one of the World.

Of course, raising this subject from the pulpit carries risk. Every year around this time -- how much more in an election year! -- the Jewish blogosphere buzzes with commentary about rabbis who preach politics, who try to turn the Torah into a partisan rag; or conversely about the duty of moral leadership, the responsibility to consult our sacred tradition for guidance on tough decisions around the social and political issues of the day.

No doubt, there are rabbis who do both: veiled partisan messages, and responsible moral leadership. God knows I strive for the latter. And God knows this gets more difficult and delicate as our political discourse grows increasingly bitter and divisive.

It’s worth noting that rabbis offering prayers at political conventions is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1896, the Republican Party invited Rabbi Samuel Sale to give an invocation at the Convention that nominated William McKinley. Sensing an opportunity, amidst an economic downturn, to draw Jews from their Democratic loyalties (sound familiar?), the Republicans calculated that offering this prominent spot to a rabbi would serve their political agenda.

Both parties have put rabbis front and center at their national conventions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.The record may have been set by the 2008 Democratic Convention, which had prayers by seven different rabbis of all the major denominations. This led one Jewish leader to quip, “Obama has a goy or two as well" (Sarna, The Forward, 06 September 2012).

Although, as historian Jonathan Sarna points out, these appearances “legitimate Judaism as a major American faith,” he notes an uglier aspect as well: “Both parties,” he says, “seek to attract Jewish voters. Both believe that inviting a prominent rabbi to offer prime-time prayers can help.... It all comes down to politics.”

*   *   *

In 2007, I attended the Jewish Federation General Assembly in Nashville. I went to a session on the upcoming election with a panel of representatives from the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council. To this day, I wish I had asked them the following question: 
On what issues does your Jewish commitment lead you to diverge from your party’s platform?

I urge all of us to ask ourselves that question, too. If the answer is “none,” then your Jewish commitment is shallow and one-dimensional. There’s no such simple truth as “Judaism supports Republicanism” or “Judaism supports Democratic positions.” Judaism cannot simply be distilled into liberalism or conservatism. Our rich, multi-layered, ancient tradition transcends glib punditry and political soundbites.

Case in point: the two rabbis’ convention prayers. Freedom and individual rights in one, care for the poor and vulnerable in the other. The truth is, Jewish tradition affirms both of those principles.

Let me offer a few examples.

First, on the so-called “conservative” side: There’s a beautiful midrash in the Talmud, based on a phrase from Bamidbar that we sang together not long ago this morning: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael / How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5). These are the words of Bilam, prophet-for-hire sent to curse the Israelites, who was so overwhelmed at the site of them, that he could only utter words of blessing. In the Talmud (Bava Batra 60a) we find the rabbis discussing a mishnah, which begins:
In a courtyard which he shares with others, a man should not open a door facing another person's door, nor a window facing another person's windows.
In the Gemara that follows, the rabbis ask:
Whence are these rules derived? R. Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, “And Bilaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes [and said, Mah tovu...]” (Num 24:2). This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them!
In other words, the rabbis here reinterpret Bilaam’s words to highlight the importance of privacy and individual property rights. Perhaps we can infer that they would believe in a civil authority charged with protecting these unassailable individual rights.

Fast-forwarding to the medieval period, let’s consider Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah. He lists eight ways to perform the mitzvah of tzedakah, one holier than the next. At the top of his list is this:
The highest degree of charity—above which there is no higher—is he who strengthens the hand of his poor fellow Jew and gives him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or [better yet] enters into a business partnership with the poor person. By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him till he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse. It is thus written, “Strengthen him so that he does not fall and become dependent on others” (Leviticus 25:35).
~Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14, trans. Dr. Meir Tamari
It’s not hard to read into Maimonides’ words conservative principles of avoiding government dependency, and ensuring that help given to those in need is help toward becoming self-sufficient.

[Aside] Anyone feeling uncomfortable yet? Maybe a little hot under the collar? That's ok. In discomfort there is learning...

Now let’s consider voices from our tradition that support a so-called “liberal” position.

There is an entire tractate in the Mishnah, based on laws in the Torah, devoted to Pe’ah, the command to leave the corners of your fields unharvested so that the needy may gather your produce for food. The Torah commands:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I Adonai am your God. (Lev 19:9-10)
This is not a matter of charity. This is mandatory. You might even call it a tax to fund a social welfare program for immigrants, and the poor.

Also consider the haftarah for Yom Kippur, from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah sees the hypocrisy of those who hurry to shul and do all the rituals, while still sinning in their private lives, and he has to speak out.

Here are Isaiah’s words:

“Why, when we fasted, did You not see...?” [the people ask God.]
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness...
To let the oppressed go free....
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him.... (Isa 54:3-7)

You can practically check off the liberal soundbites: labor rights, freedom from oppression, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked. It’s texts like these by which so much of the Jewish social justice movement is anchored.

These four texts are the tip of the iceberg of our broad and deep tradition. 

Perhaps some of you are wondering, “Ok fine, rabbi, nice texts, but which is it? When you really add it all up, does Judaism lean more liberal or more conservative?”

It’s a natural question. We all want our political loyalties affirmed by our religion. But our tradition speaks in many voices -- 

so, as Hillel might say: now go and study it!

I don’t believe we can say for certain that Judaism supports one platform or another. But our tradition contains within it an even more important lesson that transcends any political texts.

This lesson appears in many forms. One of my favorites is in the Talmud (Chagiga 3b), as a midrash on a verse from Ecclesiastes (12:11): “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails well planted [are the words of] the masters of assemblies; they were given from One Shepherd.” 

The Talmud asks: Who are “the masters of assemblies?”
These are the disciples of the wise [the Rabbis], who sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit.
Picture a yeshiva, full of scholars and the hum of Jewish argument. On any given question -- is this object ritually pure? Is this dish kosher? Is this witness’s testimony admissible -- there are as many opinions as there are rabbis, and maybe more! This may seem like chaos to the casual observer (or like any Jewish conversation, to a Jew!). And so the Talmud continues: 
“Should a man say: How in these circumstances shall I learn Torah?”
That is, with all this disagreement, how can I learn anything about what the Torah actually says?! Therefore, they quote the end of our Ecclesiastes verse, “All of them are given from one Shepherd.” All of the opinions, all of the arguments, all of the points of view, says the Talmud:
One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: “And God spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1). 
In my estimation, the most important guidance that the Torah offers our political lives is not about what side of what issue to take, but instead about how to treat those with different opinions. 

You are not to check your mind at the door; the Talmud advises that you should sift through all the arguments and make your own judgments. But you are to learn from all perspectives, to sit in the assembly with your opponents, to argue with them from across the table, not from outside the tent.

Those who contribute to the brokenness of our political discourse today, within and beyond the Jewish community, need to learn this lesson of Torah -- especially those who distort Torah for partisan ends.

*   *   *

As it turns out, neither party invited me to offer a prayer at its convention. It’s ok, I was probably too busy anyway (writing this sermon, for example). But here on this pulpit, I offer this prayer for all of us, and the whole Jewish community, in this Election season:
Ribono shel olam, Great One of the World, we’re trying really hard here to put Your will into action through our political affiliations.
Remind us that You are bigger than party and faction, and that some of Your truth always resides in the words of our opponents. Give us the confidence to learn from them, especially the ones who seem so wrong at first... Remind us of the wisdom of our ancestors, who taught,“Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). 
Teach us that our People’s record of your Revelationis subtle, complex, multi-vocal, at times confusing and troubling, and elsewhere a clarion call for justice. Help us to study it more (perhaps with a local rabbi), and through our learning to know You better, and Your will, for our action in the world. 
Then may we fulfill your promise to Abraham, that we shall be a blessing to the community and nation we all call our home.
Shanah tovah.

Immigrants and Iconoclasts (Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon)

Rabbi David Segal, Aspen Jewish Congregation
16 September 2012
Wheeler Opera House

Immigrants and Iconoclasts

“Get out of here” was, more or less, the first thing God said to Avram, as he sent him toward his destiny to become Avraham -- the first Jew, the father of our people and faith.

More precisely, God said:
Lech lecha, mei-artz’cha u-mimolad’t’cha u-mibeit avicha, el ha-aretz asher ar-echa /
“Go forth from your homeland, and from your birthplace, and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)

The moment of our People’s conception began with a command to leave home, to leave behind the familiar, to become an emigrant. Abraham, we know, would lead a different life than his parents, in a foreign place, with different values and practices.

In the Torah, the transition between Abraham’s family tree and his call to go forth in the next chapter is jarringly abrupt. Our tradition, as it always does, found ways to fill in this gap, and to answer the  burning question: Why did God choose Abraham? What made him special, worthy, ready?

To answer these questions, the rabbis produced one of the greatest midrashim of our tradition, found in the collection Bereishit Rabbah. It has become probably the most famous biblical story that isn’t in the Bible.

Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop....  
One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods.”Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them. 
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried. “How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, ‘I'm going to eat first.’ Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.” 
“What are you trying to pull on me?” asked Terach, “Do they have minds?”Said Abraham: “Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?”
~Bereishit Rabbah 38:13

Abraham the monotheistic hero! So our tradition has colored this midrash, that we read it as proof of Abraham’s vision to see through the emptiness and vanity of the evil of idolatry. Abraham was worthy of God’s call, therefore, because he rejected the sinful ways of his idol-worshiping parents and community.

I’d like to offer a different gloss on this midrash, another way of seeing Abraham’s merit, and then hold that up as a mirror to us as we look toward the next generation of Jewish life.

What if the problem in Abraham’s hometown wasn’t that people worshipped idols per se, but that their worship was stale and uninspiring, that it offered its adherents nothing transformative, nothing to comfort them when disturbed, or disturb them when comfortable.

What if Abraham wasn’t merely a zealous monotheist -- as our tradition paints him, one-dimensionally -- but rather a true iconoclast, ready to make room for a new spirit by toppling the idols of his father?

In true Jewish fashion, Abraham wasn’t simply about “out with the old, in with the new.” Even as he decimated his father’s inventory, he still managed to go into the family business, in a way, himself. In the Torah’s description of Avram and Sarai as they depart for Canaan, we find that they left “with all the people [or souls] they had acquired in Haran” (Gen 12:5). The peshat or surface meaning is simply that they traveled with a number of servants. But Rashi has a more interesting idea: These were the people, he says, whom Abraham and Sarah brought under the wings of the Shechinah, by converting them to Judaism! (Rashi on Gen 12:5.)

Abraham rejected the religion that his father was hawking, but he also went into the business of bringing religion to others. And isn’t that always how one generation treats the previous? We smash the idols of our fathers, and yet we realize that they may have been onto something.

So too in our family histories. We’re here because someone in our family tree heard a call like Abraham’s -- “get out of here!” -- and got out of wherever “there” was, becoming an immigrant and embarking toward “a land that I will show you.” For us in this room, in this community, that Promised Land meant the shores of the New World, America. Of course, Judaism would never be the same after putting down roots in the soil of American religious freedom. But the dream of those immigrants, the yearning in their hearts that pulled them past the Statue of Liberty, through Ellis Island, or whatever their port of entry, into a society whose language and customs made them feel, at first, uncomfortably Other -- their motivation was a vision, a hope, of making a better life for their children.

Here we are, several generations into the American Jewish experience, and experiment. Can there be any doubt about the success of our immigrant ancestors’ efforts to create a better life for us, their children? Can there be any doubt, as we sit here in the Wheeler Opera House, in the center of Aspen, CO, celebrating our Jewish holidays?

Yes, there’s still anti-Jewish bigotry, but it’s marginalized by the mainstream of Americans who no longer tolerate systemic anti-Semitism. And you don’t have to look too deeply into the communications of the American Jewish establishment to realize that, apparently, we think far less about those who hate Jews than we do about those who want to marry Jews! Intermarriage is more of a hot-button issue than anti-Semitism, and that speaks volumes to how far we’ve come. Jews in America are far more prosperous, secure, and comfortable than at any time or place in our history.

But, in that prosperity, we are haunted by the unintended consequences of achieving our immigrant ancestors’ dreams. Making a better life for our children, when so many of us come from such privilege, cannot be enough anymore. Or maybe we need to redefine, in Jewish terms, what a better life means now.

We still operate on the immigrant mission of achievement, success, and acculturation. Now those goals have become the stale idols of our age. Once these were the stuff of a noble vision held by refugees fleeing religious and economic oppression. Now, I fear, this once worthy mission of our people here has become an empty quest for success.

What our time calls for -- what we need to replace those idols with -- is striving for a life of purpose, principle, meaning, and impact.

To be sure, security and prosperity will be an element of this new vision, but they can no longer be ends in themselves.

We need to reform our Jewish mission statement -- we must commit to making lives holier, fuller,
more meaningful, more just. And, dare I say, more Jewish!

As Rabbi Peter Rubinstein and Cantor Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan 
like to say, about Jewish life, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” There are many ways to break out of the outdated, while staying true to the essence of our tradition, and make Judaism relevant, engaging, and even necessary, in our time. 

Here are a few that we, and others around the country, are trying.

1. Getting outside our shul walls.
Like Adventure Rabbi and the NextDor project of Synagogue 3000, we know that religious engagement will suffocate if it stays too tied to being inside a building. All the more so in our surroundings! Our Mountain Minyans bring skiers together for Shabbat on the slopes, as well as hikers and bikers in the summer. See also, of course, our 2nd annual 2nd-Day Rosh Hashanah at Maroon Bells Amphitheatre! You haven’t heard shofar ‘til you’ve heard it outside in the mountains. Later this fall, we’re throwing a Sukkot Festival at Rock Bottom Ranch, with apple pressing, warm cider, snacks, and games. Our community is already active outside. All we have to do is open the door to let Judaism out to meet you!

2. A commitment to inclusivity
We have no barriers to membership. Financially, that results from our new Sustaining Membership program that allows everyone to pay what you can. (Thanks are due to Carol, Jordan, Lisa, and our Membership Committee for all their work on this.) We also openly embrace and welcome LGBT, multi-cultural, and interfaith families. Some of our most involved members are non-Jewish partners and parents. They support their children through B’nei Mitzvah, they play in our rock band, they bring their kids to tot shabbat, they join their Jewish partner when called to the Torah. There are more non-Jews living in Jewish homes than at any time in our history. The Jewish world is just beginning to make sense of that new reality. We like to think of it as an opportunity.

3. Life cycle and learning for life lessons.
Our Torah study, B’nei Mitzvah process, Hebrew School, and other educational opportunities are designed to make Judaism a relevant guide for wherever you find yourself in life. How many Jewish couples want a rabbi for their wedding, but don’t want the ceremony to be “too Jewish”? How many B’nei Mitzvah students roll their eyes in boredom because their parents make them go through it? How many Hebrew school kids whine about it, only to be told by their parents, “I hated it too, but you have to go just like I did”? We strive to show all of them -- all of you -- that the framework, stories, and rituals of Jewish tradition are not designed to burden or harass you. Their purpose is to enrich your life, to help calibrate your moral compass, to build a community around you whose presence you can count on in times of good and bad. (Thanks to Jessica, Cantor Rollin, Lee, and our Education Committee, we are doing this here.)

4. Building a better world.
Tikkun Olam is still a growing edge for us. (Thanks to Daryl Gelender for all your work
to kickstart us in this area.) Many Jewish organizations find that Jews connect to each other and to tradition powerfully through volunteering and advocacy. There’s been talk here about a community garden, the produce of which we could donate to local needs. In December I’m taking a group of high school students to DC to learn about how our government works, and how to speak truth to power as a Jew. They’ll each get to present an issue they care about to their congresspeople and senators as the culmination of the weekend retreat. Remember, too, not all our people, Jews or Americans, enjoy the same prosperity and security with which so many of us have been blessed. We bear a responsibility to help those who struggle by contributing our time, money, and care to make positive change in America and the world. It’s yet another way to reclaim our legacy.

There are surely other ways I haven’t named, haven’t even imagined yet! The point is, if we fail to use the rich array of Jewish spiritual and moral tools at our disposal, in new and creative ways, we will find Judaism to be as cold and lifeless as a statue in an idol shop.

*   *   *

Perhaps we are not destined to emigrate -- at least not geographically. But like birds facing a coming winter, we must migrate in our Jewish engagement, to weather the winds of change.

Underlying all the approaches I mentioned is a fundamental paradigm shift: from Jews as customers of synagogues, to Jews as citizen-owners of a sacred community. It’s not easy to shift culture. It requires an investment in people and relationships, and an understanding that programs must come second. So as one of my resolutions for 5773, I am committing to having 50 one-on-one conversations with you, our community, by Passover -- to get to know you and your Jewish journey, to learn about your interests and passions, to build a stronger web of sacred connections. I will also be recruiting other leaders to commit to their own goals of one-on-one relationship building, to broaden and strengthen our community. Some of you are out there already -- here I am, being publicly accountable to you in setting these goals.

I believe with all my soul that we can do, and are doing, great things in this valley. We can make our ancestors proud, and be worthy as their heirs.

I believe we can even make inroads into the 60+% of American Jews who are labelled, somewhat ominously, as “unaffiliated.” They can be the Abrahams of our day, too -- they look at the idols of organized Jewish life and find nothing engaging or inspiring -- if they look at all. Mostly they just walk away, not even caring enough to smash those idols.

My charge to you as this New Year begins is: please, smash our idols, with zeal!

Help us sweep away the stale and staid and outdated, and make room for a fresh, vibrant Judaism, still steeped in tradition, but primed for the next generation. Help us tear down our institutions, so we can rebuild them together, better -- more inspiring, more transformative, more visionary.

And then, like Abraham, don’t stop at smashing idols: Set out for somewhere new. Be a pioneer to a new frontier of Jewish exploration. A leader for and with your fellow Jews to territories not yet known.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of our greatest modern Jewish leaders, wrote:
“To have faith does not dwell in the shadow of old ideas conceived by prophets and sages, to live off an inherited estate of doctrines and dogmas. In the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism is the loss of integrity.... Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event.
~Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 164-65
I repeat: “In the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir.”

That, precisely, is the legacy of Abraham. Our legacy. Questioning our inherited wisdom is precisely how one merits inheriting it. We show ourselves worthy of our forebears by doing things differently than they did -- just as they did things differently in their day.

Are you ready to accept the challenge of caring enough about your Judaism to get your idol-smashing hammer out of storage, dust off the cobwebs, and get to work? Are you ready to be the heir to a tradition of change, an old-new faith that manages to be reborn l’dor vador, from generation to generation?

Out of the ruins of those idols, are you ready to build something new founded on a transcendent vision, a holy purpose worthy of a kingdom of priests?

Are you ready to go?

Then, lech lecha, let us all go forth, to a year of idol-shattering, of immigrating, and of the pioneering spirit that has sustained our People during all our many wanderings. 

Shana tova.