Shabbat Talmud Study: Spiritual Notifications

Shabbat morning, March 3, 8:30 – 9:30 am
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

To live in the modern world is to live in a world filled with audio notifications. Our days are punctuated by pinging phones, email notifications, buzzing texts, honking horns, and human sounds which alert us to information which is available to us and provide us with opportunities to connect. We are good at deciphering each of these aural cues, but we aren’t always so adept at deciphering the aural cues of our tradition.

Have you ever wondered why we chant Torah to specific melodies? Why prayers sound a certain way in certain seasons?

Our ancestors created a musical system of notifications that help us to arrive in the moment-to be alive to the spiritual potential of our texts and traditions. There are places in the Torah where the music creates jokes, places where the music highlights the plot or uncovers secret meanings.

Join me this week as we explore the sound notifications of our tradition. We’ll focus on two fabulous stories and I’ll show you how understanding the mechanics of the music transforms our understanding of the text.

See you at 8:30!

Shabbat Talmud Study: Our Moral Blind Spots–What Are We Not Seeing?

Shabbat morning, February 24, 8:30 – 9:30 am

Moral blind spots. We don’t see what we don’t see.

When King Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem, the House of God, which we read in our Haftarah last week, there is a huge moral blind spot. As is the nature of a blind spot, he does not see it. The author of 1 Kings 5 and 6 does not see it. But we, the modern reader, see it clearly.

The House of God was to be a House of God, which meant that there had to be a moral core to its construction and use. The builders could not use any hammer, ax or iron tool on the stones that would compose the House of God because those are instruments of war, and the stones must be happy, peaceful stones, not befouled by weapons of war. While seeing some moral problems (war), other moral problems neither the King nor the biblical author could see.

Similarly, when Ari Shavit’s great grandfather Herbert Bentwich goes from England in 1897 to visit Eretz Yisrael, he has a blind spot. He does not know it at the time. He does not see what he does not see. But it is crystal clear to his great grandson Ari Shavit what he did not see.

How do we understand the phenomenon of a moral blind spot? What causes us to have moral blind spots? What are our moral blind spots? What do we not see that we do not see?

What do we do about it?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Best Kept Secrets of the Torah Service

Shabbat morning, February 10, 8:30 – 9:30 am
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

When we come to shul on a Shabbat morning, we see a service that is fully formed, filled with familiar melodies and rituals. Our service feels like a composed masterpiece-assembled at Sinai and safeguarded through the ages.

But if you look closely, our liturgy is more like a patchwork quilt. There are pieces of fabric from Sinai, threads from our ancestors, lace that our grandparents added, all stitched together with love. When we look at these individual pieces, when we trace the development of our service over time, we begin to see not only the wisdom of our tradition, but also ways we can access deeper meaning and connection during the service.

This Shabbos, we’ll be exploring the Torah service. We’ll trace the Torah’s journey since Sinai, we’ll discover how Torah became a military super-hero, the ways that Torah has been leveraged to create healing and wholeness in the world, and we’ll see that Torah is part of a theatrical and improvisational experience of learning that developed long before scientists touted the wisdom of active learning.

If you’ve always wondered why the Torah service is the way it is (or if the Torah service bores you to tears) please join me this Shabbos at 8:30!


Shabbat Talmud Study: Thou Shalt Get Out of the Comparison Trap!

Shabbat morning, February 3, 8:30 – 9:30 am

There is this thing that many of us do, it is not helpful, it does not work, and yet we continue to do it. We compare ourselves to others. How am I doing? I compare myself to the person on the left. I compare myself to the person on the right. I have this. They have that.

The preacher Andy Stanley calls this “the comparison trap.” It is a trap because we are never well served by comparing ourselves to others. As Andy Stanley puts it, “there is no win in comparison.”

Which leads us to the Tenth Commandment that we will receive again this Shabbat morning at Sinai. Rabbi Shai Held quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel to the effect that the Tenth Commandment is: Thou shalt get out of the comparison trap. Do not compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to yourself. Who are you? Who do you want to be? How do you get there?

It is easy to say: get out of the comparison trap. But how do we do it?  If we find ourselves thinking about this friend’s vacation, that friend’s second house, the incredible nachus that friend has from their children and grandchildren, this friend’s abundant financial resources, we know it is a bad idea. We know it is not helpful. But how do we stop it?

On Shabbat we will consider a psalm and a story from the Talmud that can help us get out of the comparison trap because there is no win in comparison.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Do We Serve the God Who Loves the Vulnerable? Or Do We Domesticate the Texts That Tells us To?

Shabbat morning, January 27, 8:30 – 9:30 am

What light do Jewish values shed on the current conversation on immigration? Take the issue of the 200,000 people from El Salvador who immigrated here legally but on a temporary basis–which meant that the American government that let them in could, legally, say their time is up and it is time to go, which is what the administration recently decided.

This decision may be legally sound. Does it cut muster from a Jewish point of view?

Consider the following fact pattern. Two people who came here temporarily from El Salvador years ago meet and marry. They work in America. They pay into social security. They get married and have three children, all of whom are born in the United States, all of whom are American citizens. This family of five is living and working productively in an American city. The decision of the administration to send people from El Salvador back home means that the parents will be forced to return to a place they have not been to for years, where they have no opportunity and will face violence and destitution. Their children face the choice of going back to El Salvador with their parents, without prospects. Or staying in America without their parents, their family broken.

Do Jewish values have anything to say here?

When Rabbi Shai Held came to Newton in September to talk about his book of Torah commentaries The Heart of Torah, he made an observation that has not only stuck with me, but has haunted me. Namely, the Torah has all these beautiful passages about God loving the most vulnerable among us, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and commanding us to have empathy for the vulnerable, because we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. Rabbi Held pointed out that there is a danger that we “domesticate” (his word) these texts. That we treat them like pets. There, there, nice, nice text. But we don’t actually live them. If we lived these texts, what would we do now? How would we act?

Rabbi Held wondered out loud, a few days before Yom Kippur, whether he had ever truly served the God who loves the vulnerable. Maybe he only domesticated the texts that tell us to do so.

Tomorrow morning, we will read excerpts from two essays in Rabbi Held’s book that ask the same question.

Wherever you happen to come down on the merits of this contemporary issue, our thinking should be deepened, and challenged, and enhanced, by Torah, ever contemporary and wise.

See you tomorrow at 8:30 in room 24-25.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Best Kept Secrets of Shabbat

Shabbat morning, January 20, 8:30 – 9:30 am
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

In religious school as children, we learned how to pray. We learned where to bow and what to say. But we didn’t always have time to learn why. We didn’t always get the download of magic spiritual potential hidden in the service.

Today, we come to Shabbat services every week, and go through the motions of prayer. Sometimes the services touch our hearts, sometimes it feels like the whole point is just to bring us together as a community.

But there are so many treasures of meaning and transformation hidden within the Shabbat morning liturgy. When we hone in on the spiritual gems of our tradition, when we access the deeper wisdom of our ancestors, Shabbat can be an experience of enlightenment-a series of prayers which leave us feeling lighter and brighter after davening together.

Join me this Shabbos as we discover all the magical secrets of Shabbat morning that you wish you had learned as a child.

See you at 8:30.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Should Temple Emanuel Continue to Sing the Music of Shlomo Carlebach?

Shabbat morning, January 13, 8:30 – 9:30 am

This week it hits home.  Louie C.K. is one thing. But Shlomo Carlebach is quite another.

We are in the middle of a series about the relationship between sublime art and troubled artist.  Do we still take in the comedy of Louie C.K., watch the films of Dustin Hoffman, listen to the symphony conducted by James Levine, let ourselves enjoy the genius of Kevin Spacey?

Last week we saw two approaches, both of which left us unsatisfied.  Reuben, first-born son of Jacob and Leah, slept with Jacob’s wife Bilhah.  How to understand this sin of Reuben in the context of the life of Reuben?

One approach is that of Jacob, who says in effect in his death-bed scene at the end of Genesis: Reuben, you are your sin.  I cannot see the rest of you because of your sin.

The other approach was that of the rabbis in Shabbat 55b who say: it did not happen. Don’t bother me with the evidence.  He would not have done it. He could not have done it.  He did not do it.

Total rejection or willful denial.  Is there a third move?

Tomorrow we will consider the recent soulful reflection of Neshama Carlebach on her father Shlomo Carlebach. She does not deny his sins.  Nor will she equate his sins with the totality of his humanity.

While most of us have not watched Kramer vs. Kramer or The Graduate in a hundred years, those of us who daven regularly encounter the music of Shlomo Carlebach every week.  Tomorrow Elias will be with us and will do a Shlomo medley.  Shlomo Carlebach’s art is gorgeous and is ubiquitous in our services. But Shlomo himself was famously problematic in ways that damaged real people who trusted and looked up to him.

Rabbis and cantors, rabbinical students and cantorial students, are in the midst of a hard conversation about what to do with such beautiful music that comes from such a troubled source, namely, a human being with flaws-who has been dead for some time and can no longer do teshuvah.

What do you think we should do?<

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Can You Handle the Truth?

Shabbat morning, January 6, 8:30 – 9:30 am

Do you remember the scene in the classic A Few Good Men (1992) when, in the climactic courtroom confrontation, Jack Nicholson’s character says to Tom Cruise’s character: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Can we handle the truth?  Here is the truth that is hard to handle. Many human beings are complicated amalgams of beauty and ugliness, of incredible talent and deep flaws.  I was speaking with our teacher Micah Goodman about Louie C.K., Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, James Levine, and other artists whose art is now problematic, if not off limits, because of the personal sins of the artist.  I said to Micah, “if you thought Louie C.K., were funny, would you still watch him?” He said (facetiously), “definitely not. And then I would stop reading psalms (written by David, an adulterer and a murderer).  And then I would stop reading Kohelet and Proverbs (written by Solomon, whose heart was turned pagan by the many pagan women he brought into his palace).”

Micah’s point?  The psalms we daven every morning were written by a deeply flawed human. The wisdom we consult was written by a deeply flawed human who could not follow his own wisdom. Flawed artists produce breathtaking art. The Jewish tradition gets this.  But many of us struggle here. We might read David. We might read Solomon. But we are not watching Kevin Spacey. How should we think about this? If we were binge-watching videos to get though the storm, should House of Cards be off limits because of the immoral, repellant, cruel, and illegal conduct of its star, who also happens to be one of the great actors of his generation?  How to balance this all?

Shabbat shalom,