Talmud this Shabbat: Three Love Stories That Are Dark, True, and Ours

In a recent Talmud class, one of our learners observed that beer commercials always show people who are young, hip, fit, healthy, happy, and in love, living and loving life without a care in the world. They drink. They play. They laugh. They barbecue. They enjoy the beach. Happy and perfect.

Why is that not us?

Are we not the beer commercial because we carry the heaviness of Jewish history?

Or are we not the beer commercial because it is not the human condition? Life is not like that. Real people are not like that.

This question-from whence comes the complexity, the weight, the lack of ease-is reflected in a special reading associated with Pesach, day 8. We read the Song of Songs, which is supposed to be a love story, the canonical equivalent of the beer commercial, young lovers in love. But it is not. As we will see the lovers in the Song of Songs can never get it together. They yearn without fulfillment. They seek without finding. Their love is deeply felt and not consummated. The Song of Songs is the opposite of the beer commercial.

We are going to consider Song of Songs in the context of two other love stories, also dark, also true, and also ours– Abraham and Isaac, and Leonard Cohen’s final song, You Want it Darker, in which he says Kaddish for himself, written a few weeks before his death. This song is his midrash both on Song of Songs and on Abraham and Isaac. We will study his lyrics and hear him sing it.

We don’t do easy days at the beach. Because we are Jewish? Or because we are human? What do our love stories say about us?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Shabbat Talmud Study: How Can Our Brokenness Make us Better and Stronger?

In his evocative column this week entitled “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy,” Times columnist David Brooks raises the question: when you are broken by life, what does that brokenness do to you?

Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open.

The foundation of our Exodus story is that we were broken. We were slaves. For 430 years.

Tomorrow morning, our last class before the first seder, we will see how the Haggadah provides us with a roadmap for how our brokenness can make us better and stronger. It is not easy. It is at least as likely that our brokenness makes us smaller. But it is possible. What do we need to think about, what do we need to be working on, so that we can will ourselves from our broken place to our better and stronger place?

Your Exodus is in your hands.

Shabbat shalom and chag kasher v’sameakh,

Shabbat Talmud Study: What is the Arc of Your Life, and Does the Seder Get You?

Think about one of your biggest and most persistent problems. Your Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim does not only mean Egypt. Mitzrayim is also an existential category, a narrow place from which you need an exodus. We all have some Mitzrayim-relational, financial, professional, health (tomorrow is mental health and inclusion Shabbat at Temple Emanuel), emotional, from which we need out.

The Mishnah in Pesachim describes the Israelites’ exodus from their Mitzrayim. Wish we could all enjoy an exodus like this.

He brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to rejoicing, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to a great light, from servitude to redemption. Let us say before God: Praise God. (10:5)

The Israelites are blessed here with a very happy arc. A linear arc. They were slaves. No more. Now they are free. They were in darkness. No more. Now they are in a great light. They were in mourning. No more. Now it’s time to celebrate.

Is that arc real? Does this happy arc apply to you and your Mitzrayim? If so, great. Good for you. But what if this arc does not take you in? What if there is no happy, linear arc? What if your darkness hangs on? How else can we see the trajectory of our lives? What other moves does the Seder have for us? The first seder is two weeks from tonight. Let’s get ready.

See you tomorrow.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: God’s Body, Part II

Here is the problem we are trying to solve. Jews are blocked on God. Community? Check. Social justice? Check. L’dor v’dor transmitting values from generation to generation? Check. Israel? Check. Rich family traditions like Shabbat dinners and Pesach seders? Check. But God? Many of us will say, “I am not a God person.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Hadar has an interesting thesis. Maybe the problem is that for Jews connecting with God is too much of a head thing. You have to read a book to get to God. You have to be a philosopher to get to God. We are given a menu: Heschel, Kaplan, Soloveitchik, Buber, Levinas, which is great if you are a graduate student in Jewish philosophy.

How can we reach God through our emotions, through our heart, through feeling?

Last week we read Rabbi Kaunfer’s sources which show overwhelming evidence that, to quote one of his sources, “The God of the Hebrew Bible has a body.” We also encountered Talmudic sources where God has a body. Talmudic rabbis see, talk to and talk about God in the flesh.

Does corporeal God solve our God problem? For most of us, no. Corporeal God leaves us cold. It feels off. It feels weird. It feels not us. Reading Heschel or Soloveitchik may not be the answer for everyone. Taking God’s arms, legs, back, face, flaring nostrils literally also appears not to be the answer for many around the table.

Can we solve our God problem? Is there a non-intellectual, non-corporeal way to connect with God?


Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: God? A New Old Idea

When I talk about God, one reaction I often get is: “I am not a God person. Can you talk about community instead?”

Why is that? For 21 years I have wondered why much of my teaching on God does not land. And then this week, while listening on line to a lecture by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Hadar, I had an epiphany.

Tomorrow I think I have a game changer, Rabbi Kaunfer’s sources and ideas, a paradigm shatterer, a conversation that might make God real for people who had never seen themselves as God people before. Rabbi Kaunfer’s idea will be provocative, might be shocking, might well offend some, but after that it may even help.

Can’t wait.
Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Does the Torah Have a Position on Socialism vs. Capitalism?

If you have a child or grandchild in their 20s, and you talk to them about economic inequality and what to do about it, you are likely to discover that words that were dirty in my generation are no longer dirty to many in the rising generation; and that words that were sacred are no longer sacred. Case in point: Socialism and capitalism.

I was raised to believe that socialism equals communism equals fascism equals injustice. That childhood equation was refreshed in adulthood: socialism equals Venezuela equals death. Any American candidate that would attach themselves to the word socialist would earn unremitting opposition.

By contrast, capitalism evoked what Winston Churchill famously said about democracy itself: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Capitalism is not perfect, but it is the best principle on which to build a society. That was axiomatic.

But what was axiomatic for me growing up is no longer axiomatic for many thoughtful young people. In my conversations with 20-somethings today, these paradigms-socialism bad, capitalism good-are no longer so clear to them. Many are not repulsed by, but are attracted to, candidates who attach the word socialist to their identities.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shekalim, by which we read the Torah’s explicit acknowledgement that there is such a thing as rich and poor.

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel…the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than a half a shekel (Exodus 30: 13-15).

How does the Torah regard the reality that there are rich and poor? Is this reality inevitable? How should we see it, and what should we do about it? What does the Torah’s posture on economic inequality mean to us today? In considering these questions, we will consider the wisdom of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Shai Held.

Economic injustice has been a problem for a long time. How might our past inform our future?

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Urim V’Tumim and the Fantasy of Easy Answers to Hard Questions

Pick the most divisive, polarizing issue of our time. The issue that you won’t discuss around the dinner table with family or friends because it will not end well.

Now imagine that there were some device that could ascertain God’s will about the answer to this vexing question. Our Torah tomorrow offers us just such a thing, the Urim v’Tumim, translated by our Etz Hayim chumash as “the instrument of decision…for determining the will of God in specific matters that were beyond human ability to decide.”

Imagine if we had the Urim v’Tumim today. What is the right answer on: abortion, immigration, border security, criminal justice reform, health care, or any other issue that occasions constant disagreement. As a society we have been disagreeing about these issues from generation to generation. Is there such a thing as the right answer to these questions? Is there such a thing as God’s answer to these questions? Is it even possible for there to be the answer that resolves the question once and for all?

How did this instrument of decision work out for ancient Israel? Did it work? Did they use it? Did it really resolve their hardest questions? What do we learn about the hardest questions from the Urim v’Tumim?

Finally, google “Yale insignia.” Guess what you will see. Why that?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Why Do We Do Bad Things-and How Can We Stop Ourselves From Doing It?

If you want to see a movie that gets inside of you, lands like a porcupine’s quill, and does not leave, ever, see Three Identical Strangers. It tells the story of three identical triplets born in 1961 who were as part of a diabolical medical experiment separated from one another as 6-month old infants and sent to live with separate families, all in the New York area, unaware of one another’s existence. Identical triplets were a few miles away, and yet a universe away, until young adulthood. They discovered one another at the age of 19. The film tells the sorrowful tale about how this medical experiment ruined their lives.

All of that is sad enough. But what is particularly horrifying is that the creator of this medical experiment was a man named Peter Neubauer, who was born in Austria in 1913. He came of age in Hitler’s Europe. He managed to escape the Nazi regime by immigrating to New York in 1941. Once here, this man who avoided Mengele’s diabolical medical experiments, perpetrated Mengele’s diabolical experiments on unsuspecting babies and families. A refugee from the Holocaust ruined Jewish lives by doing Mengele here.

Why is it that victims of abuse, when they emerge into their adulthood, all too often perpetrate that abuse on others?

The Israelites are slaves for 430 years. When they are finally freed, and receive the Torah at Sinai, God frames the moment by saying I am your God and I took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You would think the first thing they would do is build a society where there was no slavery. Yet, immediately after Sinai, the first law is “When you acquire
a Hebrew slave.” Jews become Jewish slave owners of Jewish slaves. Like the refugee from Mengele doing Mengele in America.

What is that? There is no magic bullet, no magic pill, no panacea for our resistant, recidivist human nature. Not even God at Sinai could shock us into decency.

But the Book of Exodus does have one core insight that can help us at least check ourselves, even if we cannot rid ourselves of our darker shadows. This one insight will allow our nobler angels to emerge, if we work at it every day.

See you tomorrow at 8:30!

Shabbat Shalom,