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,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Studying Joy – A Proposal by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie

Shabbat morning, November 18, 8:30 – 9:30 am

For the last two weeks, we have grappled with the reality of modern intermarriage and examined the thinking of the Conservative movement that emphasizes maximally welcoming interfaith couples while inviting and encouraging the non-Jewish partner to convert, and reaffirms the traditional stricture against rabbinic officiation at interfaith weddings.


Shabbat Talmud Study: Should Temple Emanuel Permit Me to Officiate at an Intermarriage If the Conservative Movement Says No?

Shabbat morning, November 4, 8:30 – 9:30 am
In a blog post dated July 14, 2017, entitled “Sacred Boundaries and the Question of Intermarriage,” Rabbi Rafi Rank, an extraordinarily gracious, generous, wise Conservative rabbi, tells this story of Heather:
Heather was a girl raised in an observant Jewish family that belonged to my synagogue.  She was deeply into the congregation’s youth groups, enjoyed socializing and went off to college with hopes of securing a bachelor’s degree and perhaps an available Jewish bachelor as well.  During her years at college, she came to me on several occasions disillusioned with her social life on campus.  There were plenty of Jewish boys at the university she attended and she was close on a couple of occasions to settling into a long-term relationship, but in the end, something always got in the way.  It was her religious observance. She liked to go to services on Shabbat-not every Shabbat, but periodically.  She spoke about belonging to a synagogue someday.  She kept kosher, not of the “I can’t eat in a non-kosher restaurant” variety, but she was careful with what she ordered outside her dorm room, yet for some reason, her observance was a turn-off for the boys she dated.  The tears would slowly make their way down her cheeks when reflecting on her frustrations. 
Years later, now in her early thirties, Heather contacts me with good news-she was engaged.  “Mazal Tov,” I said, to which she replied, “But he’s not Jewish.  Rabbi-he’s the first guy I’ve ever dated who hasn’t made fun of my keeping kosher.”  She wasn’t a young lady to exaggerate or beg for sympathy. She was truthfully telling me her experience, and from a purely liberal Jewish sociological perspective, it was a deeply sad tale.  To make matters worse, I was about to make matters worse.  She asked if I would officiate at her wedding, and I responded, as do all rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, “I’m so sorry, but no, I cannot.”
Rabbi Rank’s answer to this thirty-something young woman who grew up in his shul-no-has now been amplified by a document that came out last month entitled “A Pastoral Letter to Conservative/Masorti Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, Institutional Leadership and Kehillot,” which also says, very nicely, no.  Same answer. Same conclusion.  Eloquently put.
So I have a problem.  I want to say yes.  I would be genuinely happy that Heather, in her early 30s now, found somebody to love.  I would want to stand with Heather and her beloved and find a way to sanctify their union.  Not chuppah and kiddushin, the traditional language and ritual of  Jewish marriage where two Jews wed.  But some new and different ceremony that can still sanctify their love.
If I had been Heather’s father, I would have been praying deeply for years that my daughter find somebody to love.  Every morning and every night, and when I went to the open ark on Neilah to pray to God before the gates closed, this would have been my prayer:  “God, please help Heather find love.”  And when she did, and she brought home a mensch, I would have experienced this as the fulfillment of my deepest prayer.  I would be really happy.  I would want my synagogue to share in my happiness.  If my synagogue said no to Heather, if my synagogue said no to me, I would go to another synagogue.
This is not hasty.  I have been marinating on this for years.  For reasons of principle and conscience, to be faithful to my departed mother’s legacy of loving people for who they are, and in order to advance my best sense of what is right for Heather and her fiance, her parents, her future children, the future of our shul, and the future of Judaism in America, I believe “no” is a 20th century answer that does not work in a 21st century world.  A 21st century answer must find some way to say yes.
What happens now?
See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30.
Shabbat shalom,