Dec 30, 2007

Shmot 2007/5768: "A World Without Children's Voices"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The very beginning of Shmot/Exodus includes the following familiar narrative:

"A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. (Ex. 2:1-4)"
The power of Moses' birth is largely lost when read in the context of his rescue by Pharaoh's daughter. Once we realize that his birth immediately follows Pharaoh's declaration that every male child born be thrown into the river (Exodus 1:22), the act of a certain man and woman of Levi gains in significance.

In fact, says the Midrash:

"... when Moses' father Amram learned of Pharaoh's order, he immediately divorced his wife Yocheved (their names, as well as Miriam's, are absent from our text). Miriam said to her father, "Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh's! Pharaoh only issued a decree that the males should die, while your decree applies to both males and females. Pharaoh decreed that the children's lives be terminated only in this world, and you have decreed that they not live both in this world and the world to come. Pharaoh is wicked, and the likelihood is that his decrees will not be fulfilled. You are righteous, and your decree will certainly be fulfilled!" (Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, p. 287)"

Miriam's prophetic chutzpah led to her parents' brave decision to bring a child into a threatened world.

During this Winter vacation week, I visited both a mall and the Boston Children's Museum and considered both their very different environments and the very similar people who frequent them. The noise of each was almost deafening, with voices ricocheting off walls and windows. Both places contained "hands-on" and protected areas. Both were protected from the elements beyond their defined boundaries. And both were with omnipresent children and caregivers.

It occurred to me, as I watched young face after young face pass by, that every child's face was also the emerging face of a potential parent. The training provided to these future parents' in each space was vastly different. The mall teaches that acquiring things is exciting. The museum teaches that interacting with the world is fun. The variety of colors and flavors at the mall is actually a barely-hidden mask of material uniformity. Every thing has a label. And a price. The inability to avoid looking at someone else in the museum
while experiencing newness is more deeply experienced as an explicit statement that learning alone is less than learning together.

Both the museum and the mall serve as gathering places. But the mall leads me to escape the noise. The museum encourages me to listen and learn from the sounds.

Having recently read Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" and viewed Alfonso CuarĂ³n's film version of P.D. James' novel "Children of Men", I feel renewed urgency when I hear children. Almost desperation. I am afraid of the observation one of the characters in the film shares: "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices." It's not my spiritual perspective as a father that prompts these thoughts. Nor is it my fear that either McCarthy's devastated landscape or James' youthless world will actually come to be.

I am simply concerned that we adults all too often miss our obligation and opportunity to see our children as emerging parents. When we program for Shabbat morning, do we nurture the caregiver aspect of our children's development? When we pass by a homeless person, do we remember that they too were one of those noise-making children? Do we acknowledge the bravery of today's parents, who struggle so often with infertility, and who have chosen to bring children into an uncertain world, answering every dark headline with the birth of new soul?

Just imagine for a moment what our world would be without our Miriam's. We'd forget how to be parents. This is not the world for which we work.

Our world, our precious fragile world of dreams and laughter will only be realized when we remember to learn from children and publicly celebrate our parennts. Childhood lasts such a short time today, with omnipresent media and commercialism. Let's not miss it by creating separate space for our children. Let's find ways of dancing together to the noise of their laughter.

Then Miriam's redemptive chutzpah will be fully present again.

Dec 16, 2007

VaYigash 5768/2007: "Closer, Come Closer"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

An often overlooked message of the Joseph stories is the theology implicit in the way he explains the story to his brothers upon disclosing his identity. Joseph says:

"Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come forward to me." And when they came forward, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach Yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure Your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 45:4-8)"

In other words: The brothers shouldn't be worried that Joseph will exact revenge - they were not to blame.

What is the theological implication? That this criminal act, perhaps all crime, is ultimately God's design. What then of accountability, consequence? Free will? Now, of course, we've "read the book, and we come out on top (a la Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical midrash)", but Joseph was abducted, assaulted, jailed; Jacob lost his son - are we to encounter the story as detached readers, convinced throughout of God's Plan as the justification for the suffering endured by others? What then might we say of the Sho'ah being part of a plan that led to the State of Israel in the same way that the Egyptian slavery is to be understood (according to the biblical authors' understanding of history through Joseph's mouth) as the means towards Sinai and freedom? Are we to see death and suffering as justifiable, as acceptable means to ends? Even read into history after the fact (especially then, since many readers are then survivors of the trauma), this text is incredibly difficult. even offensive.

We can perhaps use the text of this Parasha itself to reapproach the God known described in one way therein.

According to many translations, Joseph calls his brothers to "Come
forward." But the Hebrew text of "Geshu na eilai, vayigashu" teaches that Joseph called his brothers, saying "Come close to me. And they came close" The context informs us that, before disclosing his identity to his brothers, he sent all the courtiers out of the room. This is paralleled by a rabbinic read of Judah's actions in the beginning of our Parasha for which the name "VaYigash" derives. The typical translation of Judah's action is "Then Judah went up to him", but the Hebrew word "VaYigash", from the same root as teaches that Judah "Came close". A midrash suggests that Judah positioned himself in between Joseph (whose true identity was still secret) and the courtiers. Intimacy was the goal - not navigation of system and hierarchy.

God is more than the biblical text, and one definition of God cannot suffice. The difficulty of navigating the layers of Jewish tradition associated with every piece of Torah is exacerbated when the text feels like an impenetrable system. But that's not what the layers are. Every attempt to explain the text is truly an act of relationship, a coming closer for the reader, the authors, the content, and the ultimate goals. For a Jew (and for others), this means that by desiring to come close to God through Torah, multiple relationships are fostered - with the biblical authors, with the generations of readers and commentators, with self, and hopefully with a community of fellow readers/seekers.

Torah is more than the word, and God is more than Torah. Our particular path can be incredibly compelling, and freeing. All we have to do is be brave enough to "come close."

Dec 10, 2007

Channukah 5768: "Contagious Flames"

© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

On the eve of the Seventh night of Channukah, these thoughts are shared in hope that the many internal conversations in our communities continue and ignite a healthy flame in the world around us. The circle perhaps begins in every individual, touching our shul community, our local neighborhood, state, our Country, Israel, and the world. As our Channukah experiences have likely contained many moments, both joyous and sad, I pray that all our homes be filled with increased light.

One classic source for an understanding of Channukah is found in the Talmud, in which we read:

"Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Channukah is one light for a person and their household. The 'beautifiers' (Mehadrin) kindle a light for each member of the household. The 'extreme beautifiers' (Mehadrin min HaMehadrin), — Beit Shammai maintains: On the first day they light eight lights and thereafter they are gradually reduced, but Beit Hillel says: On the first day they light one candle and thereafter they are progressively increased (TB Shabbat, 21b)."

This text teaches us that a Mitzvah can be performed according to its requirements, or can become beautified. The basic requirement for Channukah candles is one candle each night per home, and our contemporary practice of lighting one candle per night, per household member renders us 'extreme beautifiers.' And we are. We make the performance of the mitzvah more beautiful than we might.

And so I ask us to consider what it means to take an expected role and elevate it? What can it mean for any of us to confront a requirement and make it even more beautiful? Do we ever do that without realizing it, as we might do through the ritualized (expanded) fulfillment of our Channukah lights?

Classic disputes happen in Jewish tradition when words or ideas have multiple possible meanings, such as in a later interpretation of a phrase in the Mishnah "…a blessing is not said over the light until it has been utilized (M. Berachot 8:1)." The Gemara suggests that:

"if one could see a flame but could not use its light, or if could do something by the light but see no flame, she should not say the blessing; one must both see a flame and be able to use the light (TB Berachot 53b)."

A light is a light is a light, right? The Gemara suggests that an act performed can remain incomplete. It is possible, the Gemara proposes, to use a light without seeing the flame if the flame is hidden around the corner. But in what situation could we see the flame and not be able to make use of the light? The rabbis of the Gemara suggest that:

"it is when, for instance, the flame keeps on flickering… Our Rabbis taught: We may say the blessing over glowing coals but not over dying coals. How do you define 'glowing'? — Rabbi Chisda replied: This means coals from which a chip, if inserted between them, will catch of itself."

A mitzvah-flame that is lit, performed as required, that can only sustain itself is not enough. To be unaware "extreme beautifiers" is not enough. In order to transform the flickering candle into a glowing coal means to harness our fire and share it, so that if a fellow candle is brought close to us it will become illuminated.

This is our task, and I am overwhelmed and in awe and scared and excited and joyful and trembling. We are a home for so much goodness, and that is not enough. We learn Torah, comfort others in times of trouble, and respond to needs as they come up. But that doesn't make us "extreme beautifiers."

If a newcomer to our shuls does not feel ignited by the experience, which can only be communicated by the person sitting next to them – or who makes it a point to sit next to them and welcome them - we have not performed the act of community building enough.

If we are to truly become Mehadrin min HaMehadrin, Extreme Beautifiers, we are called to make these abilities and commitments contagious in the world around us, person by person.

May we be brave enough to light the lights we can - and then reach a bit deeper to light those still waiting.

Prayer for Building an Aron Kodesh

Prayer for Building an Aron Kodesh
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Adonai, Infinite One, guide our hands.

Our hearts and minds are full of Yira, wonder, and Ahavah, love, as we commit to building this Aron Kodesh to house our sacred center, the Torah.

We have infused it with our imaginations, with history, with dreaming – and we pray that all who seek You find an aspect of this Holy Vessel with which to connect.

As we build, we build not just for ourselves, but we build for our children and for countless generations. As we place materials together, we mirror the builders of the Mishkan, Your temporary desert home from so long ago. We are mindful of the Beit HaMikdash, the Jerusalem Temple. We remember all the homes our community has known, and pledge to incorporate our community’s essence of this new container of Zikaron, Eternal Memory.

We build out of Ahavah, love, and Mesorah, the commitment to share and continue Jewish tradition. What we commit to building now is leDorot, forever.

Let it be such glorious work that all who enjoy its culmination may give thanks and feel loved.

May our shul be a sacred place reflecting our dreams, our love, our labor, our sacrifices, and our very souls.

We offer our prayer of Bracha, Blessing, to the inspiration of Nishmat Chayim, the Divine Living Spirit within each of us.

Adonai, Infinite One, guide our hands.


Dec 5, 2007

A Reflection on Conservative Jewish Halacha

© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

When inherited tradition and modern ethics collide, we might (and I believe should) define Torah according to Rabbi Ellie Spitz, who wrote "Torah is the unfolding narrative of the Jewish people." Our subjective sense of "what is right" IS Torah. And Halacha answers to Torah. So to the question: "if Halacha conflicts with ethics and reason, do we then reject the Halacha?" I respond as Maimonides did (according to Moshe Halbertal's "People of the Book"), by committing to making sure our implementation of the Torah conforms to our understanding of the world.

This is perhaps a reformulation of Rabbi Joel Roth's formulation of Halacha (in his "The Halakhic Process") as resting on the "grundnorm", a concept created by Hans Kelsen, who used the term to denote the underlying basis for a legal system. I believe that our grundnorm is "Torah", by which I mean what Rabbi Spitz meant: That our grundnorm, our basic authority, is the unfolding narrative of the Jewish people. Torah has always been subject to contemporary interpretation, and must remain that way in order for our path, our Halacha to remain alive.

This, I believe, has always been the approach of Conservative Judaism, though not always the approach of the Conservative Movement. It is easier to explain Conservative Judaism than most formulations would have us believe. Ideology by consensus need not be all-inclusive, nor must purposefulness necessitate judgment of those outside decided parameters. Self-definition is prerequisite to relationship with another - and given that our "other" is The Other, definition is a holy command.

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