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Jun. 19th, 2015

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My Dvar Torah (short sermon) on the week of my teacher Reb Zalman's first Yohrtzeit(death annivrsry)

Dvar Torah
Parshat Korach
Gut Shabbos! This weeks parsha is Korach, an interesting interlude in all the rebellions against Moshe or God or order in the Book of במדבר . Korach, along with Datan and Abiram, or parallel to their rebellion, challenges Moshe’s authority. Why is Moshe in charge when all the people are holy, Am Kadosh and Momlechet Kohanim as we read in Shmot 19? He challenges Moshe and Aaron, רב לכם , which is usually translated as “You take too much, you assume too much.”
Moshe answers, tries to shame them that they have the honor of Levites, but they are not satisfied, they want to be priests and leaders. He shoots back at them רב לכם בני לוי . So there is a challenge, each brings his own incense plate, God accepts Aaron’s and sends fire to consume Korach and his followers.
There is a question – Doesn’t Korach have a point? Is he a democrat? Should we sympathize with him? The traditional answer is that he is a demagogue, he is not really for spreading the power, only to take it for himself.
But that’s not what I came here today to talk about, as Arlo Guthrie would say. This coming Monday is the first yohrtzeit of my teacher, my rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He was my teacher for over 40 years, and helped form me as a Jew and a rabbi. He was filled with holy chutzpah, as his friend Shlomo Carlebach would say. He was deeply rooted in the Chassidic tradition, in Jewish texts, and he knew and respected and learned from many other spiritual traditions. He believed they all were paths to the ineffable, the true God beyond system, beyond theology. He called this "Deep Ecumenism,"  Yet his path was the Jewish path.
Zalman taught that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, not the first in Jewish history. There was a paradigm shift at the destruction of the first Temple, when we saw whether Judaism could survive for a generation without a Temple, and even outside the land. But then we returned for another 600 years until the destruction of the Second Temple, a bigger crisis because it wasn’t rebuilt, and there was a struggle as to if and how Judaism would survive. It looks to us as if Rabbbinic Judaism was there to take over, but that wasn’t clear immediately. There were a lot of paths proposed. Most died out, though one other, the path that became Christianity, also survived in its own way.
There were many crises along the way. One was the expulsion from Spain, which produced its own paradigm shift, the growth of Kabbalah, of mystical Judaism. Kabbalah existed before, but it became much more important after the Iberian expulsion, centering in the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire.
We tend to think of the changes as pretty immediate, but in reality the response to these crises took a long time before there was a new understanding(s) of being Jewish.
We are in the midst of a major Paradigm shift, Reb Zalman taught. It began with emancipation, which is some places began 200 years ago, while in other places well into the 20th Century. The Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the major migrations of Jewish populations, all are part of it. This has led to new understandings of Judaism, Reform and later Conservative, and what we consider “Orthodox” and “Charidi” which were responses. Also various kinds of secular Judaism including Zionism. More recently Reconstuctionism and Renewal.
How does this relate to the parsha? The question about Korach was, was his revolt לשם שמים or was it for his own glory? Are the new forms of Judaism visions for the future or reactions of fear? How can we be bold and at the same time authentic? This brings us back to the phrase רב לכם . I tend to think about this as a question רב לכם? Do you have a Rav, an authorative source? Is your understanding authentic, true, truly serving the ,קב'ה The Holy One?
I could speak much longer on this, but I’m just opening the discussion here. We don’t expect half hour DTs in the space.
Reb Zalman is the source of many of the things I do, especially the opening up of liturgy, of bringing in other music (e.g. Ripple), dovennin in English, more physical expressions of worship.
I now want to invite you to share in one new form of worship. Reb Zalman had great respect for the Sufi tradition of Islam and was even ordained as a Sufi master. He was able to use the Sufi tradition of Zikkr and make it authentically Jewish. So I would like to invite you to experience this form of worship that I learned from him. Though you can do it in place, it will work better, individually and collectively, if you come up here and do it with me.
ה' מֶלֶךְ, ה' מָלָך, ה' יִמְלוֹך לִעוֹלָם וָעֶד

Oct. 10th, 2013

jeff, birthday

Thoughts on "Soul Doctor"

I went on Wednesday to see Soul Doctor, a musical about the life of Shlomo Carlebach.   I was planning to see it after the holidays which only ended last week, but then heard it was going to close this coming weekend, so I  thought I should go to the matinee that day.   The reviews had been mediocre and had led me not to expect much, so I was pleasantly surprised.

First of all, Eric Anderson was a credible Shlomo.  I know Shlomo for over 30 years and there was a lot right there.  The music was great, as expected.   I thought it would be weird that most of the Hebrew words were replaced with English, often not having that much to do with the original, but it mostly worked.

I was also expecting a trivial picture of Shlomo, with no depth.   There is some truth to that criticism, but the character is really trying to do something.  I agree there was a little too much "peace and love".  That was part of Shlomo's message, but he was rarely without a religious text in his hand and was a terrific teacher.   He interspersed his music with teaching, and my favorite times were when a house concert would, late at night, boil down to a few dozen people, and he would do more serious teaching.  Not much of a hint of that here. 

There is not much of a exploration of Shlomo's dark side.  He does break the heart of one young woman who falls in love with him, but Shlomo did get over his fear of contact with women and at times seems to have gone over what we would consider proper limits.   I think that is also part of the truth, but this show was created with the involvement of Shlomo's family, especially his daughter Neshamah, so this was not surprising.

One of my favorite scenes was Shlomo's first time in a recording studio.  They can't get a good recording because Shlomo can't stand still while he is singing, staying in front of the microphone.   Finally one of studio people grabs the mike and moves it with him.  Back in 1970 Shlomo sang at the first New York Freedom Seder in Battery Park(see second paragraph here.   Our only sound system was a bull horn and one had to sing directly into the mic, but Shlomo, in those days, could not sing without jumping up and down.   Finally Arthur Waskow took the mic, stood directly in front of Shlomo and they jumped up and down in unison, face to face, so Arthur could hold the mic in front of Shlomo's mouth.

As I said, the show is closing this Sunday, October 13.   Tickets are $135, but there are rush tickets available each day when the box office opens at 10 am, but there are also tickets way on the side for $39.  If the house is not full, which it was not when I was there, they let you move to a seat with a better viewing angle.

Jan. 15th, 2012

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Arthur Green on Abraham Joshua Heschel and Hasidism

On Thursday evening I went to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School and heard a lecture by Arthur Green titled “What Heschel Learned From Hasidism.”  Green was a close student of Heschel when he was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1960s.  It was a brilliant talk, though I thought I would share what I managed to take down and remember.

First of all, Green said, Heschel would have hated the title of the talk.  He did not like divisions in Jewish life.  He bridged worlds and was critical of all of them.  He wrote about many of them.

Heschel was a living link to the lost world of Jewish Europe.  In his first real appearance on the public stage in Americal, at YIVO in 1944, he spoke about that lost world.  He later expanded this into his book “The Earth is the Lord’s.”  Around the same time, in 1943-44, he reclaimed his middle name.  Before that he was known, and wrote as, Abraham Heschel.  After this he was Abraham Joshua Heschel.  This was the name of his famous great great grandfather and reflected his Hassidic identity.  His family was from the Ukrainian school of hasidism which was a kind of peasant hasidism.  His father was an immigrant to Warsaw which was generally dominated by the Ger/Kutsk school, which was more rational and skeptical of miracle workers and similar stories.  There were no yeshivas reflecting his heritage, and his early education was under the influence of Ger.  Heschel later said he lived between these two worlds, Medzibush and Kutsk.

Heschel grew to see the Hasidic world as “small minded” and wanted a secular education.  It would have been a scandal for him, scion of a Hasidic dynasty, to go to a secular gymnasium in Warsaw.  His tutor arranged for him to attend a gymnasium in Vilna, a center of the anti-Hasidic misnagdim.  After a year he enrolled in university in Berlin.  He also wrote poetry.  In time he learned to speak in Biblical language which was accessible to both Jews and Chrisitians.

So, what did Heschel learn from Hasidism?  Green says five things, and he will especially expand on the fifth.

A sense of wonder -  “The whole world is full of God’s glory!”

There is nothing you can prove
    Religious truth is about testifying, not proving.  His book “The Sabbath” is an expansion on ideas in
    “Sfas Emes,” a book by an earlier Gerer rebbe.

He understood the need for charismatic religious figures, but saw corruption in the Hasidic world.
    So he went back to the prophets as his authentic “rebbes.”
    (Buber, the outsider, could romanticize Hasidic leaders, not Heschel)
    His lecture “Did Maimonedes think he had attained prophesy?” actually applies to him also.
    He did become a prophetic figure, and saw it in Martin Luther King Jr. which led him to accept it             also in himself.
    There is a Hasidic expression “Zogt Torah” - to speak Torah (different from to learn or teach).
        The word IS the Torah.

Chesed and Simcha - Loving Kindness and Joy
    Even his criticism is through chesed.  
    His Judaism is of love and joy.  He rarely spoke about sin or repentance (unlike Solevetchik)
    He focuses on action, to do good, not focus on sin and guilt.  There not much reference to                 Messianism.  He is more interested in We redeeming God, not God redeeming us.

“God in Search of Man” - God needs us!
    The way we act is meaningful to God, it makes a difference, even in a cosmic sense.
    (This is contrary to Mainmonedes who says God is perfect, has no needs)
    This idea goes back to Ramban, Nachmanedes.  Mitzvot bring the Shechinah out of exile.

Heschel traced this debate back to Rabbis Akiba and Ishmael in the second century of the common era.
    Ishmael - the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is only post Golden Calf.  The people need it.
    Akiba - Mishkan is renewal of creation, full of secrets of creation.

Heschel derived this from Hasidism
    For early hasidim, all mitzvot/acts have cosmic significance.
    For later hasidim, the acts of the rebbes have this significance.

For Heschel the most significant mitzvot are
    Feeding the poor, ending war, marching with MLK.
    These are spiritual acts, not just political.
    These are the acts for which we were created.

Heschel’s God was very personal, but we must do the work for God
    (still balancing Metzibush and Kutsk)

These are my rough notes on a very polished talk, but I hope they give a sense of it.

Aug. 7th, 2011

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Trip to California – 2011 (Part 2)

Post Kallah

We had picked up a rental car on Friday.  After I turned in the van, we drove back to Culver City and checked into our hotel for two nights. We then met our old friend Susan Lindau at the Inn of the Seventh Ray, a place that was a favorite romantic rendezvous for P and me when we lived in LA 30+ years ago.  Still a lovely place, though they warned us there would be a wedding there and, after a while, they were playing music which was not conducive to the usual quiet mood of the place.

Monday, July 4, we visited the Mastodons at the Tar Pits , then spent several hours at the LA County Museum of Art.  Alizette was particularly interested in seeing the Tim Burton exhibit (which had previously been at MOMA in NYC) and then we checked out some other art.  Then we had an early dinner at the Fish Grill on Beverly, one of a chain of four kosher fish places.  Good fish at a good price.  Paula says we need one in Brooklyn.  We went back to the hotel, then out to find a vantage point to see fireworks in Culver City, a nice display.  I figured out where there was a neighborhood park with a good view, yet kept us from getting caught in a huge traffic jam afterwards.

Tuesday, our last day in LA, we connected with a few more old friends,  Miriam (with lunch at a Persian grill restaurant) and Shahnaz (with a visit to the Pacific Ocean at Venice Beach.


That is the California part of the trip.  A and I took Amtrak east with stops at the Grand Canyon and Chicago.  I plan to post a second blog about that soon.  (less than the month it took to get this one up)

(I've posted photos before, but now Livejournal says the post is too large if I include photos.)

jeff, birthday

Trip to California – 2011 (Part 1)


The Aleph Kallah was held in Redlands, CA,  June 27-July 3, 2011. 

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I am taking two classes each day, for four days.  In the morning I am taking a class in Jewish Musical Shamanism with Richard Kaplan.  This included sharing and discussion on how music affects both our own spirituality and how we interact with others.  We also learned a number of songs which Richard has collected from around the world, from both Jewish and other sources.  At the end of the week we performed a few of them for the Kallah.  In the afternoon David Seidenberg taught a combination of teachings from Rebbe Nachman of Breslav about serving God with dance together with actually doing various dances, ranging from traditional Hassidic dances to modern dances.  

Evenings were full of talent, often with a choice of several programs. 

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Jun. 12th, 2011

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Alizette's bat mitzvah

My daughter, Alizette, celebrated her bat mitzvah at Park Slope Jewish Center last week, June 4.
She did a great job, learning material that was difficult for her and presenting it with poise and panache. 

I want to acknowledge and appreciate both her tutor, Helene Santo, and Rabbi Carie Carter who worked with her to create this dvar torah.

Several people, both some present and some absent, have asked for a copy of her dvar torah (teaching) from that day, so I thought it would be easiest to post it here.

Dvar Torah - NASO


Shabbat Shalom!  Good Shabbos!


At the heart of parashat Naso are the rules of the Nazirite.  Unlike a kohen (priest) who has to be born into the priesthood--anyone can become a Nazirite.  All you have to do is to make a vow--a promise that for a certain time (at least 30 days)--you will not cut your hair, drink or eat anything from grapes, or have contact with a dead body. 


There is a big debate about whether taking the vow of a Nazirite is a good idea or not.



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I connect to Samson because I Remember when I was a little girl.  I had really long hair—but my mom had to cut it because it got lice.  Even though I begged her not to, she had to.  I hated that, cuz I loved my long hair, and I was so upset to lose it.    Part of my identity was changed by someone on the outside.  This is a little like what happened for Samson--who didn't have any say about whether he wanted to be a Nazirite. 


 I still wish I had my long hair, but it was worth it. 



When you get to choose what you want to do (even taking Nazirite vow) you feel like you’ll feel happy/successful with you choice.  You are doing what you want to do.  It is your own thing.


But if someone (even your parents or G) forces you—it’s like they are locking up your freedom.  They can have what they want, but it may not be what you want.  If that’s the case, the very thing that may make you proud if you chose it (like long hair) can make you uncomfortable/embarrassed cuz it makes you stand out and it wasn’t your choice. 



Judaism –for me—was a choice.  I remember deciding I wanted to be Jewish (after all, I wanted to be something since I was not born having a religion at all, and my dad really liked being Jewish)—I thought it may inspire me and help me to think more outside of the box.  I thought that would be cool. 


And you know what, it is. 


That is why I'm here today, celebrating my Bat Mitzvah.  Because this is important to me. 


And I hope that I (and you) always have the courage to do what is important to us--to show it to others--even if it makes us a little different.  

Aug. 6th, 2010

jeff, birthday

Islamic Center Near Ground Zero

There has been a lot of talk about the Islamic Center (sort of like an Islamic version of a Jewish Community Center, if you take a serious look at what is proposed) "at Ground Zero", aka the World Trade Center site.

I thought I should share the photo I took yesterday after the demonstration by rabbis and other Jews in favor of the Center.

The location of the Center is where there is a group of people gathered on the sidewalk on the right side of the street.  The WTC site is two blocks to the left.  Note the block long building on the left side of the street, taller than the proposed 11 story center.  There is no way that this center would be visible by anyone at the WTC site, nor is it on a street that anyone would normally walk down on ones way to the WTC site.

Here is another photo

On the left is Rabbi Ellen Lippmann.  On the right is Daisy Kahn, co-director of the Center and wife of the Imam.   Note that not only does she not where a chador, she doesn't even cover her hair.  These people are the kind of Muslim leaders who are creating a culturally American Islam, mutually tolerant with other traditions.  They should be encouraged and welcomed.

Feb. 11th, 2010

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Doing Jewish Theology in honor of R. Neil Gillman

A couple of weeks ago there was an evening at the Jewish Theological Seminary in honor of my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman on the occasion of his retirement.  Since there was another event for that a year or two ago, I’m not sure exactly what the occasion was.  I think the first time was his retirement from full time faculty status, and this from teaching at all, but I’m just speculating.  The evening was called “Doing Jewish Theology.”

The first part of the evening was a panel with Rabbis Gordon Tucker ( also former Dean of the Rab. School and philosophy faculty, as well as rabbi in White Plains) and Julie Roth ( Hillel rabbi at Princeton U).  Chancellor Arnie Eisen moderated and also inserted his own two cents.


The opening panel...Collapse )


Neil Gillman Responds

His intention is to review the trajectory of his career – beginning with his encounter with Will Herberg in 1953 at McGill U in Montreal, which made him interested in Jewish thought (as opposed to general philosophy).  He has been at JTS since 1954 as a student or teacher, more than half the life of JTS, measured since Solomon Schechter arrived in 1902.

He notes that he spent years going around saying that there was little theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He now feels that there was much theology at JTS,.  It underpinned everything, but little trickled down to the classroom.  “I found the theology because I was hungry for it and went looking for it.”


What Neil shared...Collapse )

This was a stimulating and exciting, but also sad evening, the drawing to the close of an era and a brilliant teaching career.  The room was full of people who have been touched by Neil, and full of love.

Feb. 3rd, 2010

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This past Sunday the New Israel Fund held a Town Hall in Bnai Jeshurun in New York entitled LEFT AND "RIGHT": VISIONS OF SOCIAL CHANGE IN ISRAEL.  The speakers were Avrum Burg, former speaker of the Knesset; Naomi Chazan, former Meretz MK and president of NIF; Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel; and Daniel Sokatch, new CEO of NIF.  All now serve on the NIF board.  Moderator was Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward.  What follows is from my notes, points that stood out to me, certainly not a full recount of the afternoon.


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The afternoon was full of a combination of problems and determination.  Even with all the frustration, it was good to be in a hall full of people who are committed to a democratic and tolerant Israel which respects its minorities.

Jan. 20th, 2010

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The Rebbe Speaks

Wednesday, the last day (actually half day) of OHALAH was mostly the time for Reb Zalman to speak to the chevre.  First there was a wonderful, intense and spiritual morning service led by R. David Ingber.  This raised us to a high level to receive what Reb Z was going to share.

I know these notes are not a complete account of this talk, both because I could not take down everything and I focused on things that were new, or in a new form, from previous messages.  (Rachel the Velveteen Rabbi liveblogs with alacrity, but she was not able to attend this year.)   I also know that not all of this will be comprehensible to those who don't know the context and language.  I will explain some, but not everything.  Take what you can.

This was the form of a valedictory, as have been the last few years.  This is both because Reb Z is 85 and never knows if he will be able to address us again next year, but also because he has been consciously withdrawing from active leadership over the years, working on his writing and legacy.  He said he is passing the baton of leadership.  He has said it before, but "this time he really means it."

What Reb Zalman taughtCollapse )

He ran over time and people had planes to catch, so he was really touching topic sentences toward the end, rushing to finish.  I'm a little out of breathe just typing this.  May his inspiration continue to lead us form many more years!

After a quick tfilat haderech (prayer for safe travels) we began to disperse.  I was on such a level I totally forgot I had a bag with my tallis and tefilin in the room until the next morning when I went to say my prayers.  The hotel has sent them to me.  I'm still waiting.

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