What do we make of that moment in the prayers when the angels, safe in
heaven, are singing sweet and happy praises to God? We encounter this motif both in the prayers before the morning shema, and in the kedusha in the Amidah.
We revere and hallow You on earth as Your name is hallowed in heaven,
where it is sung by celestial choirs, as in Your prophet’s vision.
The angels called one to another:
Holy, holy, holy Adonai Tz’vaot;
the grandeur of the world is God’s glory.
(The Kedushah for Musaf on Shabbat)
There are a couple of challenges with this prayerful moment. First, it’s not us. The angels are in heaven, singing sweetly together. They make music. We are on earth, divided, arguing, talking past one another. We make cacophony.
But there is a deeper problem. If you read the sources from which this moment comes, as we will on Shabbat, the world is in the middle of a meltdown. There is a political crisis. A health crisis. A natural disaster (earthquake) crisis. Confidence in leadership is gone. The dead are piling up. The destruction is massive. I am not making this stuff up. It is explicitly in the sources we will encounter.
It is in this context of death, destruction and dislocation (Get used to it, God tells Isaiah. 90% of you will die. Only 10% will remain. The tree dies. Only the stump remains.), that the angels sing their sweet, untroubled song.
If the world is burning, why are they singing?
If the world is burning, why is God listening to it?
If the world was burning, why do we make this troubling motif—clueless angels singing to a distant God while people suffer and die—why do we pray this today, every day?
“Rabbi, why don’t you ever talk about this?”
Nowadays I get two genres of emails that start like that.
One sends me horrifying stories about the left: the Jew-hatred and Israel-bashing that come from progressive circles, e.g., Alexandria Ocasio Cortez backing out of an event to honor Yitzchak Rabin. Please see this important article by Bari Weiss here.
The other sends me horrifying stories about the right: voter suppression, voter intimidation, voter exclusion, the dying of our democracy. Please see this important article about Pennsylvania and the election here.
Both sides are 100% correct.
What Bari Weiss says is absolutely correct: anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing from the left must be named, called out, and resisted with all our heart, all our might, all our soul. The future of the Jewish people depends on this.
What the article says about voter suppression from the right is absolutely correct: voter suppression, voter intimidation, voter exclusion must be named, called out, and resisted with all our heart, all our might, all our soul. The future of American democracy depends on this.
Here is my question, as I shared last week in Talmud. Why does the same person never send me both articles? The people who send me the first never send me the second. The people who send me the second never send me the first.
Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? Can we resist anti-Semitism and the killing of our democracy by voter suppression at the same time?
On Shabbat we are going to explore a prayer that we always say and never think about: aleinu, which is all about the tension between particularism (I care about anti-Semitism) and universalism (I care about preserving our democracy). Aleinu has two paragraphs. They cut in very opposite directions. Can they be part of the same prayer? Can they be part of the same heart and soul (ours)? Here is the link to three different versions of this very complex prayer.
See you on Shabbat at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream
Is there some elegant, unifying hypothesis that can explain what went wrong and what we might do to fix it?
The answer is yes. In twenty pages, Jonathan Sacks does just that. Attached is his introduction to his new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, entitled “Cultural Climate Change.” In brilliant and lucid prose, he gets at what ails our country and our world.
What is his core insight?
Do you agree with it?
What claim does it make on you?
On Shabbat morning, Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I will discuss his diagnosis and prescription—and what it means for how we lead our lives.
Is his wisdom what the world needs now?
Every once in a while, a thought piece comes along that stops you dead in your tracks. That holds up a mirror. That initiates deep thinking and conversation about us and our world.
Such a piece came out today in Mosaic, an article by Daniel Gordis entitled: How America’s idealism Drained its Jews of Their Resilience. A copy of the article is attached here. You can love it (as I do). Or hate it (as many undoubtedly will). Please just don’t ignore it. It is too good, too thoughtful, too wise, to be ignored.
Here is his point: When Israeli Jews, and Orthodox American Jews, experienced violence, terrorism, anti-Semitism, they made it a point to get back up and to get back to business as soon as possible. Among other examples, he cites Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem, the site of a terrorist attack that killed 15 and wounded more than 130. The inside of the restaurant was utterly destroyed. Construction crews worked around the clock to get it reopened, and in two months, it was back in business. Patrons who were there on the day of the homicide bomber made it a point to sit exactly where they were sitting on the day of the attack, and to resume their meal.
Contrast that, Gordis points out, to Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue which, two years later, is still not back in operation.
Why is that?
Gordis has a definite point of view here. My colleagues and I will discuss his take. It leaves me, personally, in an uncomfortable position. I don’t want to agree with him. Instinctively, I want to chafe at and resist his conclusions. I just cannot find one that is off.
He has one particularly lyrical and evocative statement. Noting that progressive American Jewish communities rewrite liturgy (you will see how Siddur Lev Shalem has done just that), he observes “they are finding that a rewritten liturgy is now rewriting them.”
Here are the prayers, tachanun and av harachamim, that he discusses in this stunning essay.
See you on Shabbat on the Gann Chapel Livestream.
How shall we understand the hot mess that is our beloved country right now?
Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, a rabbi at the Kitchen in San Francisco, makes an utterly brilliant and original point about the difference between the fast of Tisha B’av and the fast of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur.
The fast of Tisha B’av is: we are doomed and defeated and deserted. There is nothing to do but mourn.
The fast of Isaiah is: things are bad, but we can, and we have to, take action to fix things. Rabbi Meyer points to the plethora of action verbs in Isaiah: unlock, untie, let the oppressed go free, break off yoke, share, take into your home.
The fast of Tisha B’av is about mourning defeat. The fast of Isaiah is about igniting the desire to fix brokenness.
She brought this home in the most poignant way. She said she has a Canadian passport. Many of her friends and family members are urging her to renew her Canadian passport. But she says that is the wrong move. That is the fast of Tisha B’av. Rather, the fast of Isaiah is the right move, which is to renew not a foreign passport, but to renew our own country.
Which brings us to Sukkot. Two months separate Tisha B’av (we are doomed) from Isaiah/Yom Kippur (we take action to fix). Four days separate Yom Kippur from Sukkot, where the agenda is joy. “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” Leviticus 23:40.
How does joy fit into this trajectory? How do we move from Isaiah’s charge of fixing our broken world to rejoicing in a mere four days?
When you put Tisha B’av, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot together, what is the message, and what is the message to us now?
Shabbat shalom and chag sameakh,
Hagar: “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.
Hannah: “Every time she went up to the House of Adonai, the other [her rival Peninnah] would taunt her, so that she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad?”
“In her wretchedness, she [Hannah] prayed to Adonai, weeping all the while.”
Rachel: Thus said Adonai
A cry is heard in Ramah—
wailing, bitter weeping—
Rachel weeping for her children
She refuses to be comforted
for her children, who are gone.
These texts are from Rosh Hashanah. Our Yom Kippur Haftarah begins and climaxes with crying. Isaiah begins, first verse out of the box:
Cry with full throat, without restraint;
raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
He then offers the heart of his prophecy and says that if the Israelites get what he says, and does what he says:
Then, when you call, Adonai will answer;
when you cry, [God] will say: Here I am [hineni].
See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30
Yes, it will be unlike any other. Yes, we are usually in shul, and this year we are not. Yes, it is a big question mark how to do without that energy of everyone coming back to shul to begin the year again.
But hopefulness and optimism are how we roll. We have the chance to make this year’s Rosh Hashanah extraordinarily beautiful, and tomorrow morning, we are going to talk about how to do just that.
We are attaching the brand-new Rosh Hashanah Seder 5781/2020, created by The Rabbinical Assembly here. This was written precisely for the moment we are in right now. It is geared to help us take a holiday that we usually celebrate in shul and, instead, find great meaning and joy in celebrating it at home.
Tomorrow morning each of the five members of our clergy team will take one page of this Rosh Hashanah Seder and unpack it, role modeling how the passages we usually associate with shul (e.g., unetaneh tokef) can lead to a great conversation at home with your loved ones.
Rosh Hashanah in month 7 of the pandemic is just what we need: a booster shot of prayer, song, family, community, love and hope.
See you tomorrow morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream
Shabbat shalom and shana tova,
Black Lives Matter. Mask-wearing as politics instead of public health. Racist reduction of Coronavirus to “Kung Flu.” Whites in Boston have a median net worth of $247,000. Blacks in Boston have a median net worth of $8.
What is the proper role of rabbis and cantors in such a time as this? If we do our work within the sacred bubble of 385 Ward Street, the cantors make beautiful music and sing uplifting songs, the rabbis teach and preach and counsel, is that enough? Should our job, properly considered, also require us to raise our moral voices, take action, and urge others to take action on the urgent issues of the day?
Many clergy live with a persistent gnawing dilemma. If we speak out, we offend some members of our congregation whom we love, and we want to be a congregation for all. We want to make our congregation a safe space for everybody, a place where all can come. That suggests we talk about religion, about values, not about politics.
But what religious value is more important than the principle that all human beings are made in God’s image? How can a religious community not speak out against racism? How can a religious community not speak in favor of and work towards economic justice?
If we speak out, we offend some people.
If we do not speak out, we are not faithful to Judaism’s deepest values: not to be indifferent, not to stand idly by, not to avert our gaze.
For our last class, Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I will each teach one text or song that speaks to the role of a synagogue, and its clergy, in this tempestuous time.
Thank you for learning with us throughout the pandemic. Your continued presence with us was truly a beautiful silver lining.
The texts are here.
The link is here: Gann Chapel Livestream.
Nine days ago, in Boston, in the North end, a statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded. Similar violence, destruction and removal has been done to numerous statues in the public squares of our nation. Confederate leaders. Confederate soldiers. Confederate generals. Slaveholders. Taken down. Beheaded. Decapitated. Destroyed. Removed. It is a nation-wide trend. Photos and texts are attached.
The case for statue elimination is plausible, even persuasive. As William Faulkner trenchantly observed, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Statues of racist Confederates who rebelled against our country and fought for the right to own slaves give succor and solace to racists and white supremacists today. They are deeply offensive to the notion that all human beings are made in God’s image and have equal dignity. They are particularly offensive to communities of color. As my son observed in support of Yale changing the name of one of its residential colleges from Calhoun (the preeminent advocate for slavery) to Grace Hopper College (a computer scientist), how would we feel if our children were residents of Goebbels College, or Hitler College? The intensity behind statue elimination I totally get, and perhaps it’s not wrong.
But what are the costs? What are the costs in terms of mob justice? Fury from the left, like fury from the right, is still fury. What about reasoned argument and due process?
Where does it end? Why not take down the Washington Monument? He too owned slaves. Why not take down the Jefferson Memorial? He too owned slaves.
Most importantly, what do we lose when we erase the most painful and hurtful parts of our history? Is there some other move so that we can actually learn and grow from the most painful and hurtful parts of our history? How can we learn from history that is literally effaced and erased?
Tomorrow morning we are going to see two possible approaches to statue elimination, both in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses’ final speech has so much to teach us now in this fraught season.
Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I all look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.
Abolish. Dismantle. Defund. What are we to make of these verbs, and of the fervor with which they are offered? No justice, no peace, abolish the police! Are these verbs too aggressive, or is there a legitimate basis to them?
In her op ed piece in the Times this week, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow,, and a preeminent authority on the purpose and effect of mass incarceration of African Americans, argues that tweaking the police has been tried, and it has failed spectacularly. She quotes another thinker who avers:
Look at the Minneapolis Police Department, which is held up as a model of progressive police reform. The department offers procedural justice as well as trainings for implicit bias, mindfulness and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans “warrior style” policing, uses body cameras, implemented an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices “reconciliation” efforts in communities of color.
George Floyd was still murdered.
She argues that our entire criminal justice system must be not tweaked, but re-imagined.
The core argument of so many protesters is: Incrementalism is too little, too late. Been there. Done that. Does not work. We need radical change.
In our Talmud class this Shabbat, we will examine Jewish sources on this question of incremental vs. radical change. Not surprisingly, our tradition has canonized both voices. Our prophets fulminate: radical change, now. Our rabbis caution: evolution, not revolution.
Both voices are authentically Jewish. The sources, including Michelle Alexander’s piece, the Torah, the Talmud, the prophet Isaiah, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, are attached here.
Which voice is wiser for America now?