November 17, 2017
"And because (Abraham) had a faithfulness in God, He reckoned it to him as righteousness." Few lines in Torah have done more theological mischief than this verse of five Hebrew words in Genesis. Is it really the essense of "Abrahamic faith" that "Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all share?" Or is the latter an imposition on the text to suit personal motives? Is Abraham's faith about obedience, or about being the first to have the correct theology [though it seemed Noah had that], or about something else? How is his "faith" connected to the rest of his life, whether setting out on a risky self-made future, creating various covenants and negotiations, going to war, or offering his son Isaac as a potential sacrifice? And what is his "religion" if he doesn't have Revelation yet and so isn't doing mitzvot? In this Torah study [with questions edited out], we bring the perspective of scholars like Jon Levenson (Harvard) to enlighten what these words mean, what a "promissory faith" is, and how it applies to our lives today.
October 2, 2017
My Yom Kippur Sermon (2017). With all congregants having a handout of Rabbi Irwin Kula's "Paradigm Shifts," I argue that there has been a complete misunderstanding of what "culture" and what "religion" are. Drawing on my years studying and teaching American immigrant patterns, I show "culture" and "religion" to be uniquely American constructions of immigrant communities to make it possible to allow their children to assimilate while still being proud of their heritage especially among their relatives, while demanding nothing "religious" except to follow American Christianity in attending occasional Protestant-style worship services. I provide a real standard for "culture" and "religion" which is actually the key to our Jewish future in America, and the standard comes directly from the Torah. God has Moses tell the Jewish people before he delivers the laws that when these are done correctly, "other nations will say of you, 'Surely, this is a wise and discerning people!'" When people --Christians, atheists, MILLENNIALS...-- say that to you after watching you do a Seder, or go through High Holidays, or eat Kosher, or go through the Bar or Bat Mitzvah year, then you know it was "religion." If they don't, you know it was "culture." And when you use this standard, you come to the epiphany that Orthodoxy is just as much of a culture --if not more so-- than "bagels and lox" culture. The laws are a spiritual technology, Rabbi Kula correctly puts it: if they are doing no work except that you did a "correct" one, a really "Jewish" one, then they are not religion, and they are certainly not Torah.
September 22, 2017
My thesis is: When you forget our collective history, and its true part of God's unfolding in this world, you're only left with an ethic of survival. The ineluctable connection of history and purpose is so well known to those on the far right and the far left, that their common tactic is that they must lie about history and create an alternative history that is false. Whether you're a gullible skinhead, a fervent Jew whose only ethic is Jewish or Israel survival, or a leftist who insists that every historical story is a constructed narrative that does nothing more than mask the only reality which is a power play of winners and losers, you only achieve the aim by lying, by lying about the facts, and thereby lying about God's role in history, which forms the very basis for the purposes that America and Judaism stand for.
August 23, 2017
If you can, download the KABBALAH & AMIDAH PDF and refer to it. It's a three part folio I created that uses color to track Kabbalistically significant parts of the Shabbat Amidah prayers, and shows the progression of God sefirot/attributes/emanations on Shabbat.
In this presentation, I look at the Amidah, called "The Prayer" (ha-tefillah) in the Talmud, in its evolving Shabbat version. This Amidah is an enigma inside of an enigma, a silent meditation inside of a public pronouncement, a fixed prayer which suddenly changes (in a revealed yet concealed way) on Shabbat. Full of Kabbalistically significant references, I trace a mystical, cosmic progression that accompanies each and every Shabbat, from free-flowing Chesed Shabbat evening with a focus on Nature, intoxication, forgiveness,love, blessing, and the home, through Revelation/Power/Law/Direction/Distinction/Path on Shabbat morning, to Redemption/Balance/Wholeness/Oneness/Renewal Shabbat afternoon.
August 15, 2017
Aren't New Year's Resolutions some kind of recent thing? Well, actually, resolution vows are a central part of the Temple offerings, and are expected to play a major role in your High Holiday prayers and spiritual work leading up to the shofar blast ending Yom Kippur. We know why the Talmud played them down, but maybe we play them down today for another reason altogether: namely, they don't fit with modern conceptions of "spiritual." But that's where we are completely mistaken: the core Shema spirituality of loving God with our "me'od," our excess, as the proper reciprocal response to Blessing, relies on being open and clear about the role money, good fortune, and our own wishes and desires play in our lives.
August 2, 2017
Chapter 6 of Exodus concludes a long process of distraction by Moses from the revelation and mission given him by God in chapter 3. It concludes with his infamous "speech impediment." Is this really a speech impediment as taught in Sunday schools by fundamentalists? Or do we need to say such things because it reflects a deep aspect of ourselves that it is too uncomfortable to confront? Why do we neglect opportunities to speak in this world and turn down leadership --let alone even find excuses not to ask a question or write a thank you note-- because we "are not good at speaking"? Why do we tell others, "Well, if you read some website or book... or if you just listened to what 'they' (experts) say... then you'd know..." instead of taking ownership of our positions and our own voice? How do we follow Moses' path from "I'm bad at speaking" to "Words [the fifth book of the Torah]" where Moses owns his voice in an entire book of lectures?
August 2, 2017
With the long process of avoiding his speaking role by Moses now concluded, God tells Moses that when he speaks, he will be "God" to Pharaoh. Drawing on a teaching I learned from the great Conserative rabbi Rabbi Brad Artson. this single line may contain the most concise expression of religious ethics ever. We can go from avoiding our voice to finding out how to live your voice.
May 3, 2017
Like other Torah topics including sacrifice, slavery, and creation, Leviticus's preoccupation with skin disorders offends many, prompting outrage and elaborate comparisons to historical examples of horror and immorality. And like those earlier topics, it's as if people aren't reading the Torah, but are projecting their own sensitivities -- an inevitable part of the hermeneutical circle of reading, but one which tells us more, sometimes, about the reader's sensitivities than about the Torah message. I discuss prominent, recent views of Tsarat skin disorders that sees in the Torah the judgmentalism of the insensitive medical establishment, the insensitive observer of a transgender individual, even the Nazi, and I counter with the fact that these readings fail to see the main point of the "out of the camp treatment" being the reintegration of these individuals back into the camp through the declaration of full purity by the head priests/kohanim. This changes everything. If anything, the Torah is providing a fairly obvious example of universal health care --paid for by public tithing-- right before our eyes. Why can't we see it (in a section all about seeing)?
April 11, 2017
Using David Brooks' essay on the importance of the Exodus story to the moral clarity of America's purpose, I address what the seder is really about. Once the satire of the opening is out of the way, it's all "Maggid" from there: the "oral telling of OUR story" in order to make us Jews, in order to tell us what our purpose is. Freedom without purpose is idolatry.
April 11, 2017
In this sermon, I analyze the opening of the seder (and conclude with a short tribute to a close friend, Holocaust survivor and Woman of Valor Rae Harvey.)
Reclining at dinner, drinking wine, and getting to eat karpas , a Greco-Roman appetizer, is freedom? Seriously? The first part of the seder is a wicked satire that mocks the fool's answer to the central question of the Seder, "What is freedom?"
The Jewish answer to "What is freedom?" is that Freedom is about What You Do With Your Freedom. How you answer that question depends on Your Story, your Maggid, from mitzrayim to a chance to use your freedom. Only the person who identifies with oppression knows that the real answer to the seder's central question is: "Real freedom is the freedom to serve God."