Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Pope and the Lamp Shade

Last year, there was a bit of a storm in the Catholic world when the pope seemed to have appeared in a fire in Poland commemorating the second anniversary of his death. The picture is the one you see above. It was suggested that the pope, who had made many pilgrimages during his life, was still making them after his death. Around that time, I had noticed a tear in my lampshade in my office at the shul, one that I really liked, and was disappointed to see ripped.

Now, I am not saying that the pope appeared in my lampshade. Nor am I qualified to say whether the pope did or did not appear in the fire since my theology generally doesn't account for such things. Furthermore, I would hope that the pope would try and land somewhere he would hear more than bar mitzvah lessons. But there is something to be learned, I think, about when something in life conditions you to look for things, you are more likely to find them (see the gorilla video below). In last weeks parasha, we were reminded of the blessings and punishments that we would receive if we did the mitzvot and whereas I think it is important to be reminded of consequences from time to time, a much better way to get people to do mitzvot is to simply remind them to look for opportunities to do them.

As we enter the book of Bamidbar (the desert), perhaps we can use this notion that the desert was so important us because it showed the Israelites that even in wide open, seemingly barren places, there were and are opportunities to do good things and the mitzvot. One just needs to look for them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

An alternative answer to the wicked son

I feel like when you say what does this service mean to you, you are purposefully excluding yourself from us, here. Our tradition has this funny answer that I am supposed to say to you that I know that you are trying to distance yourself from us and that "had you been in Egypt you would not have been redeemed." The implication of course is that because you are somehow wanting in faith or feelings of inclusion, that God would have left you in Egypt. It may be, at least in part, because you wouldn't have wanted to be part of us, anyway.

But that always makes me think-- where would that leave me? Would I leave without my son, a son that I love even though at times you are contentious and you drive me crazy. My answer is unequivocally that I would not leave you. How could I? I would wave to my departing neighbors, watch them get smaller in the distant sand, and stick around and help clean up the mess of the plagues-- sweeping up the dead frogs, helping to fix broken things bumped into in the darkness, burying other people's children. I would stay in Egypt as long as I had to, as hard as it would be for me to be there in servitude, because in addition to doing all these rituals with matzah, cleaning and all the things that probably make you think that I am a crazy old man-- Judaism teaches me that I need to love my family and raise my children.

I know that sometimes Judaism doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it seems to ask us to do things that are problematic, not the least of which is suggesting that I embarrass my son in public at my seder. And sometimes it is an inconvenience, when you want to be playing baseball or off with a novel instead of sitting here with us, I know. Or if you want to be eating bacon because it smells so good or shell fish because its the best thing to mix with that delicious cocktail sauce. I want you to know that it is not these ritual inconveniences that keep us together, as some would suggest. I don’t think so. And ultimately, if you decide that you want to play baseball on Shabbas or eat pork, I will still love you and I will still count you as part of my community. I have to, because ultimately you are my son-- without a preceding adjective of wicked, wise, simple, or unable to ask. And, of course, whenever you want to come back and do these kinds of things, we can still do things together like make charoset, or build the sukkah, or I’ll tell you the stories of the gemarrah.

Truth be told, we should also talk more about the novels we are reading and go to more baseball games (as long as they're not on Shabbas).

So all of this-- what does it mean to me? It means that I have a place in a tradition that values freedom and kindness. Even freedom to distance oneself a bit from the community or parts of the community that are maddening. And it's a tradition that values kindness, even to the so called wicked son.

Most important to me today is that I want you to know that this is not an answer that is pushing away Judaism-- an answer that is outside of Judaism because it pushes away the script that the haggadah suggests. It is a Jewish answer because it's one I learned from doing all these rituals and all these seders, all these years.

image from Kolel.org (Istvan Zador, Budabest, 1924)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Sondlinger SOS

To the person who emailed this (see below)-- could you please send a contact email so we can try and connect you to R. Sonderling's relatives. (You said Sondlinger, but did you mean Sonderling?) A number of months, a granddaughter of R. Sonderling, Diane, also came across our post and also DID NOT LEAVE A WAY FOR US TO CONTACT HER.

"I just came upon this article and photo about my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Sonderling. Do you have any other photos or information? By the way, he also commissioned a musical piece by Eric Korngold. The Toch music,The Cantata of Bitter Herbs is now on CD. Thanks, Diane"

Wouldn't it be great to connect you two? We hope we can help!

"My name is Daniel, I live in Los Angeles. I have a photo like the one shown above including additional relics, letters and materials that Rabbi Sondlinger left with my grandmother just prior to his death. They were placed in a time capsule with instructions not to be opened until 50 years after his death. It was discovered while renovations were being done at my grandmothers house. I figured that he had no living decendants."



Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Book Club Rescheduled...

Our book club has re-scheduled for Thursday, March 27, at 7:00 pm. We are discussing BEHOLD THE MANY by Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

video worth watching

http://view.break.com/470052 - Watch more free videos

Last year, I did a sermon about this count the basketball pass exercise and people wanted to know where they could see the video. This was not the original I referred to, but one just like it. Take a look.

The sermon had to do with Boaz's ability to see Ruth even though he was not accustomed to seeing her. Josh Millstein had pointed out how Ruth was also shocked that he paid attention to her, not surprised by his kindness but that he had even taken notice-- in the verse where she experiences his kindness, the verb "to see" is repeated as if to emphasize that this was the miracle that had befallen her. Boaz was in a position himself, having taken care of everything in his world, to be able to reach out to others. But he first had to have trained himself to see the opportunities to do so. There are some who try not to look at things that they don't want to exist in their world, and there are others who look for places to extend their kindness.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Of course, this casting of Moshe at the burning bush is impossible.  The Torah relates that Moshe had already mortally struck the Egyptian and confronted the two warring Israelites and met Tzipporah at the well.  But it certainly is fun to imagine the innocence of this Moses transposed to the one in the Chumash.  And it is fun to imagine Moshe in the Chumash getting excited and giggling when he is told to take off his shoes, so as to not tread on holy ground.

Jeff Tweedy's lyrics are like a challenge: "Theologians don't know nothin' about my soul" and I admit that at times it feels like the poets, musicians, and artists seem more in touch with whatever that soul is than the theologians who try and describe it.  Especially to we modern  Jews who seem to have lost our metaphysics.  But that block we find when we want to talk about doesn't mean we should stop trying to touch the soul-- or touch deep emotions that one might describe as "ensouled."  Perhaps "soul" is not a thing, but a destination.  As theologians we can create art too, if that is the language that helps to us get there.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hebrew School Play

The following, in three segments, is a play the Hebrew School students performed last Wednesday, January 23, 2008. The subject: how did Moses get his stutter?

Part 1

Part 2:

Part 3:

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Orthodox Stance -- Go See It!

ORTHODOX STANCE will begin its exclusive NYC theatrical engagement at Cinema Village on January 25th and tickets are now on sale!

The film will screen daily at 1:30 PM, 3:20 PM, 5:10 PM, 7 PM, 9 PM, and tickets can be purchased at www.cinemavillage.com and at the box office:

Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street (University Place & 5th Avenue)
212-924-3363. N, R, 4, 5, 6 or L train to 14th Street/Union Square

This film has been getting a lot of attention largely because the subject, Dimitry Salita, struggles in a respectful way with living in both the secular world of boxing and the religious world of Judaism. He is a solid young man with a lot of talent and he tries his best to live a life according to the mitzvot. As I am sure you have heard, he won't fight on Shabbas (listen up kids!)

I am always taken by these kinds of stories, stories where people try and bring holiness into a place where holiness is not often found, because it takes a lot of a person to be a pioneer in this way, or to stick to their convictions when not sticking to their convictions would be easier. I will have more to say about the film after I have seen it. I have seen earlier versions of it and have met Dimitry (and seen him fight).

What I would like to emphasize here is the dedication and the tenacity that the film maker, Jason Hutt, has brought to this, his work for the last couple of years. Jason likes to avoid attention and so I will not say too much about him here-- about his own ability to navigate the different worlds of Judaism and secularism, his own gentlemanly and pugilistic spirit, his own powers of observation and how they help to create a better world, but I will say that Jason deserves a lot of appreciation for sticking with this project and making sure that it was something that would be compelling, honest and engaging. He has believed in Dimitry, the film, the struggles of living in this dual world, the capacity of film to enter people into new worlds and important struggles, for a long time. If the fly on the wall had as much talent and passion as Jason for its art, we would surely put down the swatter and invite it to lunch (or fund its next projects).

Many of you have seen Jason Hutt at the shul over the past couple of years. He has been one of the supporters coming from Park Slope, dancing Tango at the Purim Bang, davenning Tisha b'Av on the floor with candles, and davenning with us on occasion on a Shabbas. He speaks kindly of our shul and we should make sure to return the support by spreading the word about his film and going to see it.

If you can, please try and see it this weekend so that interest will continue to be generated and it will get a longer run at Cinema Village. This way more people will get to see it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Take off your shoes, for the ground on which you stand is holy."

This question recently came up in a class at the shul when we were talking about the life that Moshe found in Midian.  It seemed that he was finally comfortable there, finding a wife and a life away from the oppression of his fellow Israelites.  He must have appreciated being away from all of the violence and the culture of oppression that he was around in Egypt.   It would be interesting to see how he would have been affected psychologically from killing a man (I am not sure anyone has done a comparison between Moshe and others who have taken lives), and interesting to consider that he would have appreciated being away from the place of that incident.  In Midian, he could have found peace.  

When Moshe names his son Gershom "I was a stranger there" most people (see the Hertz Chumash) read this as "I was a stranger in Egypt.  I was not royalty, but one of the Others" which most take to mean a move towards solidarity with the Israelites.  But it seems just as plausible to mean "I was a stranger in that environment.  I wasn't comfortable despite my luxurious surroundings.  That was not my place."  He could only know his discomfort and a sense of dislocation  when he found a place where he did fit, namely Midian.

This heightens the personal drama and highlights the sense of self sacrifice of Moshe.  Moshe left Midian after seeing the burning bush and re-entered Egypt where he would be uncomfortable and in danger.  He, in effect, chose dislocation for a sense of conviction.  He cast aside fashion and comfort for a cause he believed in.  

A question:  Most commentators read God's command to Moshe to remove his shoes near the burning bush as a desire to keep refuse which could have accumulated on Moshe's shoes away from the ground which was holy.  But could it be that when God appeared to Moshe and said, "Take off your shoes, for the ground on which you stand is holy" that God meant to teach that Holiness has nothing to do with comfort, fashion, or intermediaries (as represented by the shoes), but it has to do with engagement and real feeling (whether good or uncomfortable)?    

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Halacha like Love?

This is a playful and interesting poem by W.H. Auden about the Law-- What is it? From where does it derive its authority?  How should one think about it?

I think its helpful when thinking about Halacha.

W. H. Auden
Law Like Love

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyvay:
Like love I say.

Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.