Talmud this Shabbat: Are You a Champ or a Chump If You Really Listen

Imagine that somebody at Kiddush that you know vaguely in our community starts up a conversation with you, over a bagel and tuna fish, and says something not only that you disagree with, but that you hate. It offends you to your core.

I think BDS is really important. It is not anti-Semitism. It is not anti-Israel. To the contrary, it is motivated by the deepest Jewish values of seeing the oppressed, and it is going to save the Jewish soul of the Jewish state.

I am loving what the Alabama legislature is doing. It is high time that Roe v. Wade got overturned. It is high time that we realize that life begins at conception. Hopefully with Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, Alito, Thomas and Roberts, we will finally be able to protect the lives of the unborn. Thank God!

I just think our society is getting too permissive. Marriage is between one man and one woman. I am uncomfortable with this acceptance of all these alternative lifestyles. Guess who is winning the demographic race? The Orthodox. Their kids get married young, to somebody of the opposite gender, and they have big families. Lots of kids. Our “progressive values” are going to make us extinct.

In chapter 2 of Witness, Elie Wiesel observes: “It is the otherness of the other that fascinates me.” Wiesel’s move is: not to try to convert the other person. Not to try to find common ground with the other person. Not to write off or ignore the other person. But to listen to the other person with humility and curiosity.

Do you have to be Elie Wiesel to do that? Is there no line that cannot be crossed? If you are the only person doing this radical openness, are you being a chump?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: In a World Gone Mad, Wisdom From Elie Wiesel

A prophet every inch the stature of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived in Boston, a few miles from Temple Emanuel. He built and rebuilt. He loved. He taught. He role modeled. He wrote books. He won a Nobel Prize. He died.

What happened in those classrooms? What wisdom did Elie Wiesel impart that might help us today?

The prophet Jeremiah had Baruch Ben Neriah, a scribe who recorded and preserved for posterity the prophet’s teachings. Elie Wiesel had Ariel Burger, a student and disciple, who has just published a book called Witness which won the Jewish book award. This is a beautiful book that we need now.

Elie Wiesel’s frame is that the world has gone mad. His question is how can we be of the world and not go mad along with it?

Tomorrow morning we will encounter three Hasidic parables that Wiesel taught in his classroom that challenge us to be of this world, without surrendering to its despairs, and ever working on making it a little better.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Nazi Cartoon, 2019 New York Times–What Do I Do Now?

On April 25, 2019, The New York Times International Edition published a cartoon of such profound Jew hatred that the word Nazi is fully deserved, in no way an exaggeration. The Nazis were defeated in 1945. A Nazi cartoon was published by the Times last Thursday.

To its credit, the Times published a withering critique by Times Columnist Bret Stephens entitled “A Despicable Cartoon in the Times.”

Subsequently, the Editorial Board apologized for the cartoon in an op ed entitled “A Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism.” Many leading Jewish thinkers refused to accept the Times’ apology.

All of this takes places against the backdrop not only of Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Yom Hashoah, but the recent ADL report that Massachusetts had the fourth-highest number (144) of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018.

How do we understand the Times’ grave sin here? Was publishing spine-tingling Jew hatred an aberration, a mistake, or does it confirm long-standing Jew hatred and Israel hatred? Should we accept the Times’ apology? These questions I leave up to each of you.

On Shabbat morning, I want to take this crucial conversation to a higher level and ask a personal question: what is our personal connection to this issue? How shall each of us, personally, respond to this issue? What does this unsettling and scary time demand of each of us? Are we being summoned now? Does history have its eye on you?

We are going to consider a gorgeous source from Lord Jonathan Sacks that will take your breath away and has the very real potential to change your life.


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,