Monday, February 09, 2015

Why Don't We "Get" Shabbat?

I hate to admit this, but there’s one sermon topic of mine that has consistently flopped.

The topic is Shabbat.

We don’t seem to get Shabbat. What’s puzzling to me is why we don’t.

I’m not talking as a Shabbat observer looking out at everyone else; actually, even among the observant, there is a rush to “get over” with Shabbat. Everyone waits for the minute Shabbat is over, like schoolchildren waiting for the recess bell. And some Orthodox teens find it too difficult to let go of their cellphones on Shabbat, to the point that they keep the Shabbat carefully…except for texting. So it’s not a question of how observant you are; everyone finds it difficult to appreciate Shabbat.

Shabbat actually makes a lot of sense. In the 21st century, Shabbat is more necessary than ever. Constant buzzes and bells multitask our brains into mush; email and cellphones have transformed work into a 24/7 phenomenon. Now, more than ever, we need Shabbat for a little peace and quiet.

Even technology evangelists understand the need for a technology free time. Clay Shirky, a professor of social media at New York University, who teaches his students about the culture of the internet, found it impossible to allow his students to use laptops, tablets, and phones in class, because they were too distracting. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker who created the Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet, embraced a “technology Shabbat”. She and her family turn off all computers, TV’s, and smartphones for Shabbat, and instead focus on being mindful and being connected with each other. And even the investment bank Goldman Sachs understands the Shabbat. Goldman Sachs now requires junior associates to stop working on the weekend. Beginning 9 p.m. on Fridays, junior associates may not come to work or login on their computers until Sunday morning. 

So why don’t we get Shabbat?

Because we don’t understand how you can take a day off. We live in the culture of the M.B.A., where efficiency and productivity are the touchstones of meaning. For thousands of years, the Homo Economicus has seen the idea of taking a day off and forgoing potential profits as bizarre. Peter Schafer, in his book Judeophobia, devotes an entire chapter to Roman criticisms of the Shabbat. He quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E – 65 C.E.) as saying: “their practice of the Shabbat is inexpedient because by resting one day in every seven they lose in idleness one seventh of their life”. To the Romans, the Shabbat was absurd: what sense does a day of rest make, when you have countries to conquer and aqueducts to build? And this attitude is even more true of contemporary society. We live by Benjamin Franklin’s edict “time is money”, and wonder how we can squeeze a few more minutes out of the day. We carry our work with us everywhere, and take work calls and send work emails all hours of the day and night. Even universities, which are meant to be places of higher learning, have largely become pre-professional training centers, places for students to harvest A’s on their way to a good investment banking job.

But the Shabbat speaks another language. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) talks about the purpose of abstaining from work on Shabbat is to allow one to pursue spiritual experiences. Shabbat is a day to study and think, to spend with God at the synagogue and with family and friends at home. It slows us down to open our eyes to another reality.

In the Lonely Man of Faith, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that man possesses a dual nature, that of a conqueror and a poet. Man must both master and recreate the world, and at the same time stand in awe of the beauty and grandeur of creation. This duality is what Shabbat strives to help us balance; with six days of productive labor followed by one day devoted to the spiritual, man keeps himself in balance.

Soloveitchik notes that modern man clings to his work, and doesn’t open his ears to hear the other language, the feelings of awe, love and inspiration. Why don’t we get Shabbat? Because modern man is out of balance, devoted to triumphs instead of wisdom.

An anecdote from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg best describes what we don’t get about Shabbat. He was at a wedding and was sitting next to someone he had never met. He writes that:

“In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”

This plumber is absolutely correct in rebuffing Rabbi Goldberg. On a daily basis, as a habit of speech, we conflate “what we do” with “how we earn a living”. We forget that while work is important, there is more to life than work. And Shabbat is there for a full life, one that includes love and learning, insights and inspiration.

But as long as we think that how we make a living is all we actually do, we will not get what Shabbat is about.

Monday, February 02, 2015

The Good German and the Good German

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Redemption, The Jewish Mission Statement

A sermon by: Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz‎

1. Jews are Optimists!

‎It’s remarkable that Jews aren’t more pessimistic about their future.

‎In just the last two weeks, we have watched a horrific terror attack in kosher market ‎in Paris, and then another one on a bus in Tel Aviv. In both cases, Jews were targeted ‎because they were Jews. And these two horrors are merely footnotes on a long ‎history of anti-Semitic attacks. And yet, despite thousands of years of persecution, the ‎Jewish people continue on, unwilling to quit.  Jewish optimism is one of the wonders ‎of human history.

‎‎2. Exodus, Exodus and More Exodus

The key to Jewish optimism can be found in what is no less than a constant obsession ‎in the Bible: the Exodus in Egypt.  The anonymous 13th century author of the Sefer ‎Hachinuch ponders the following question:

‎‎“‎למה זה יצוה אותנו השם יתברך לעשות כל אלה לזכרון אותו הנס, והלא בזכרון אחד יעלה הדבר ‏במחשבתנו ולא ישכח מפי זרענו‎”

‎‎“…why did God command us to do all these (commandments) to commemorate that ‎miracle, for with one commemoration we would raise our consciousness of this, and it ‎would never be forgotten by our descendents…”‎‎

(His answer, which anticipates some of the psychological theories of the last century, ‎is that man is conditioned by his behavior, and that our character is shaped by what ‎we do.‎Now this is an important point, one that offers a new insight into the importance of ‎mitzvoth in the Jewish tradition; but it is not sufficient to explain why there are so ‎many mitzvot tied to the Exodus from Egypt.) ‎

The Bible sees the Exodus as the basis for an enormous raft of commandments; not ‎just the 20 or so commandments involved in the Pesach Seder, but multiple others,  ‎such as the redeeming the firstborn, Tefillin, Tzitzit, the orientation of the Jewish ‎calendar, loving the stranger, and the Sabbath. Even belief in God, the first of the Ten ‎Commandments, is connected to the Exodus. And of course, we are also commanded ‎to remember the Exodus every single day.‎Why is it that so many commandments are tied to just one event in history? ‎‎(Compare the Exodus to the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is connected to only ‎one commandment!)‎‎

3. A Weird Explanation of 400 Years of Slavery

We can answer this question with a question.‎Where did the exile in Egypt come from? It is announced to Abraham, without ‎explanation, in Genesis 15:13:

‎וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה

‎“Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your ‎descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be ‎enslaved and mistreated there.”

‎And dozens of commentators ask the simplest question: Why? Why are these yet ‎unborn generations fated to endure the horrors of slavery?‎

A strange explanation is given by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (the “Nodah ‎BeYehuda” - 8 October 1713 – 29 April 1793). In his introduction to his commentary ‎on Pesachim he writes:

‎‏, וידוע שכל גלות מצרים היה תיקון לחטא אדם הראשון שאכל מעץ הדעת, וכן נאמר לאברהם אבינו ‏בברית בין הבתרים [בראשית ט"ו, י"ג] ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך וגו'. אמר ידוע תדע, רמז לו שזה בעון ‏עץ הדעת, ותדע אותיות דעת

‎“…One should know that the entire exile in Egypt is to fix the sin of Adam who ate ‎from the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Bad)…”‎

So here is the theory; Abraham’s great, great, great grandchildren will be slaves, for a ‎sin that occurred nearly 2,000 years before Abraham is born!!

‎At first glance, this sounds nonsensical. But it is actually extremely profound.‎

The Nodah BeYehuda’s lesson is this. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam ‎and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. They were the first exiles, living in a ‎newly imperfect world. The tranquility of Eden had been shattered, and instead, sin, ‎strife and death became the norm. Life had become a true “half-life”, an ongoing ‎process of decay. Man was programmed to fail, and hope seemed impossible.

‎The exile in Egypt is a perfect example of the type of blind fate one could expect in this ‎dystopian world. And in enduring centuries of slavery, the Jews learned firsthand ‎how awful the post-Edenic world is. The fate of planet seemingly points in only one ‎direction: downward. In the Egyptian exile, they saw how nasty, brutish and short life ‎is, how unfair history can be, and how empty the soul can become.

‎And then came redemption.

‎It is no exaggeration to say that redemption is a revolution. It requires imagination, ‎and seeing the possibilities that don’t yet exist. It requires resilience, to absorb defeat ‎after defeat and still fight back. And it requires hope, the inner conviction that things ‎can get better. At the Exodus, the slaves were able to overcome history. ‎‎

4. The Blueprint for Healing a Broken World

Now we can understand why the Torah constantly reminds us of the Exodus. From ‎the moment Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the world has been a broken ‎place. The tragedy behind this brokenness is that it robs you of hope; if sin is in our ‎nature and death is in our future, how much can you expect from life? The Exodus ‎uncovers the possibility of redemption, the blueprint for healing a broken world.‎

In biblical and rabbinic literature, many things are compared to redemption, such as ‎repentance, (Yoma 86b) charity, (Baba Batra 10a) and carrying on a legacy (Avot 6:6, ‎and this is also the point of the Book of Ruth).

‎And this is why the Torah repeats the Exodus over and over again. It is a Jewish ‎mission statement, that we can fix what is broken, for the core of all things spiritual is ‎the willingness to redeem what is broken.

‎If it’s a failure, with repentance.

‎If it's a defeat, with redemption.

‎And one faces the ultimate tragedy, mortality, with remembrance.‎‎

5. The Daily Call of Redemption

‎Having redemption as a mission statement is no small matter. Redemption is not ‎just about upbeat optimism; rather, it demands that we wrestle with a broken world ‎and make it better. An anecdote told by Rabbi Norman Lamm, describes it well. Lamm writes:‎‎

“Yigal Allon, the Vice Premier of Israel, told a story which is worthy of retelling, and ‎with which we conclude our remarks. As a child in his native village near Mt. Tabor, ‎he heard the famous Jewish legend about the Messiah sitting in the gates of Rome as ‎a poor leper and waiting. He was disturbed by the story, and asked an old man the ‎question that was bothering him: "What is the Messiah waiting for?"‎

His answer is something that each of us must consider very carefully and soberly.

‎‎"He is waiting -- for you."”

‎Yes, redemption is our mission statement. And now the Messiah is waiting for us to ‎follow through on it!‎

Sunday, January 18, 2015

This Christmas, Let’s Learn the Dignity of Difference

(This was published in a shortened French version in Le Devoir)

Quebec has come a long way since last Christmas.  A year ago, we were mired in the ugly debate over the so-called “charter of values”, a proposed ban on religious symbols in government jobs that divided the province. A bizarre illustration of the 5 banned religious symbols made religious minorities feel like they were on the Quebec’s “Most Wanted” list. Even worse, the PQ was willing to countenance open bigotry. Later in the campaign, Pauline Marois said nothing while absurd tales about “Kosher taxes” and “rich McGill students” were circulated by prominent PQ supporters.

In the beginning of December last year, the city of Cote Saint Luc protested the Charter by inviting a Priest to light a Christmas tree and a Rabbi to light a Menorah in front of city hall. I was at the rally, and as an Orthodox Rabbi, it was the first time I had ever attended a Christmas tree lighting.

So what was I thinking when the Christmas tree was lit? To be honest, Jews have some uncomfortable baggage regarding Christmas. In medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing for Jews. Violence against Jews often occurred during Christmas, from blood libels in the 1200’s to a pogrom in Warsaw in 1881. But today, the situation is quite different; on the contrary, modern Jews experience a “December Dilemma”, when virtually everyone else celebrates Christmas, and Jews are left feeling like an ambivalent guest at a party, the man standing outside in the cold pressing his face against the window to see what’s going on. Because of this, in the past I wasn’t 100% comfortable listening to Christmas carols. 

But this time I profoundly moved. Here we were, at a rally to protect the religious rights of Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, and a group of Christians were lighting their Christmas tree in solidarity! Instead of being a divisive force, religion was bringing Jews and Christians together and demonstrating that religious belief can be a force for unity and dialogue.

Undoubtedly, many of the charter’s supporters were political opportunists, and some of them were out and out bigots and demagogues. But there were some idealists who truly believed secularism can bring greater peace and tranquility. They see religion as a dangerous force in the world, the cause of war and strife. So in the Charter they set out to marginalize religion, in order to foster greater unity.

What I saw at the joint Christmas tree and Menorah lighting is precisely what these idealists missed. Their assumption is unity is based on similarity; if we can get everyone to have the same beliefs and share the same culture, we will have a peaceful society. But this is profound mistake. Unity is possible without unanimity; in fact, we have a stronger unity when we learn how to embrace diversity.

After the World Trade Center attacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, was challenged to explain how religion can avoid violence. In response, he wrote a book entitled The Dignity Of Difference. He argues that the desire to universalize one’s worldview is the primary cause of political conflict; the more we demand everyone to act alike, the more likely we are to fight over differences.

Sacks makes a strong case for the idea that diversity must be respected in order for man to live in harmony. (He sees this lesson in the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel). Sacks also utilizes the Talmudic phrase “ways of peace” to serve as the paradigm of interfaith relationships. He reminds us that peace is a powerful religious value in itself, and the ability to bond with people who don’t share our beliefs is a primary religious responsibility.

This lesson is an important one for Quebec, and for all Canadians. At this first Christmas after the defeat of the Charter, we need to remember the dignity of difference, that good will for all is a critical ethical and religious value. And for myself, a Jew living in a sea of Christmas celebrations, Christmas reminds me of the friendships that respect I share with people of all faiths and all backgrounds.

A few years ago, in an article in the New York Times, several Jewish professionals told the reporter how they cover shifts for their Christian colleagues to enable them to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who is director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that “although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off, he said, he always works. ''That just infuses good will,'' he said”.

This example is one we need to embrace. Good will is another expression of the “ways of peace”; and as we learned in Quebec in the last year, good will is something precious. Hopefully this Christmas, we will continue to embrace the dignity of difference.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Rabbis Are Not God: A Lesson From The Freundel Scandal ‎

(originally appeared in The CJN, Tuesday, October 28, 2014)


I’ve been in the rabbinate for 25 years, and I think it’s high time we had a conversation about what a Rabbi should be.

A scandal too farfetched for a screenplay has come to light. A rabbi used a hidden camera to take videos of female conversion candidates undressing in the mikvah. Nothing could be more abhorrent:  a spiritual leader in a spiritual place, violating the most spiritual moment in a convert’s life.

This scandal is shocking, yet commonplace. There are now so many rabbinic scandals exposed, from rabbis of all stripes, that there are special websites devoted to rabbinic scandals. This has shaken me to the core.

 There was a time when I thought Rabbis were special. Rabbis were supposed to be spiritual heroes, overcoming temptations others could not. Even in the worst moments, one could depend on rabbinic leadership.  Elie Wiesel said that “in the (concentration) camps, there were kapos…(who were).. former professors, industrialists, artists, merchants, workers, militants from the right and the left….. but not one kapo had been a rabbi.”  Shouldn’t years of careful spiritual training change us into giants?

Yes, rabbis have to be special; we are role models, a living example of what a Torah life should be. The Talmud says one can learn profound lessons from a rabbi’s idle chatter, and from sitting at the dust of his feet. Rabbis are meant to be like “an angel of the Lord above”, a man who is part prophet, part priest.

This image of the superhuman rabbi is one that remains dominant, even today. Chasidim have a theology of the Tzaddik, a man born with an extraordinary soul. And even among non-Chasidim, most biographies of great Rabbis portray them as true angels. These are true hagiographies, meant to carefully preserve the Rabbi’s image while airbrushing out all faults. Great rabbis are meant to carry otherworldly wisdom, able to tell us God’s will regarding electoral politics and real estate deals. When a book is written that speaks honestly about the imperfections of great rabbis, (like the “The Making of a Godol”) a controversy erupts. We want our Rabbis to be perfect, to preach wisely, practice piety and produce miracles.

But sadly, that’s not what happens in real life. There are rabbis who are cruel to vulnerable converts, and rabbis who are weak, materialistic, hypocritical and dishonest. Perhaps Wiesel is right that Rabbis rarely became Kapos, but read the newspapers and you’ll see there are many other vices Rabbis have fallen into. And even those rabbis who are good people are imperfect. But we refuse to accept this, and demand perfect role models. (This desire is a universal phenomenon, one that extends well beyond the Jewish world; even Abraham Lincoln subscribed to the view that “let us believe…that (George) Washington was spotless…it makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect”).  When you expect perfection from imperfect people, something will go wrong.

To keep up with the demands of perfection, some rabbis become “religious politicians”, who use their charm and wit to maintain popularity, while losing sight of their ideals. Others, intoxicated with the power of the rabbinate, drink the Kool-Aid and imagine themselves to be God’s gift to humanity. Both forget who they are, their identity distorted by the funhouse mirror of religious authority. Sadly, congregants drink the Kool-Aid as often as the rabbis. Pick up some of the popular rabbinic biographies, and you’ll even see faults being spun as virtues. One rabbi’s lack of involvement with his family is seen as the virtue of devotion to Torah study. Another rabbi’s short temper is considered to be a desire for high standards. A Rebbetzin’s rejection of vaccinations and interest in homeopathic remedies is seen as wise rather than dangerous. And of course, if a rabbi is otherwise respected, his request for “practice dunks” is seen as meticulousness, rather than something bizarre and disturbing.

Rabbis are not God. Too often, rabbis and congregants confuse being a role model with being an angel. This attitude is incredibly unhealthy, and gives license to corruption and superstition.

Actually, one thing I’ve learnt in 25 years in the rabbinate is that I make mistakes, lots of them. There was the time early in my career, when I was all set to give a rip-roaring speech one Shabbat about the beauty of marriage, and had a painful fight with my wife the Friday night before. I learned that preaching is precarious, and that it’s uncomfortable to talk about greatness while you are still mediocre yourself; and I imagine virtually every rabbi, on their own level, struggles with similar issues.

But imperfection doesn’t stop someone from being a role model; on the contrary, it makes them more relatable. Jacob’s wrestling and Judah’s repentance make them two of the Bible’s most significant heroes; Akiva and Reish Lakish become the Talmud’s greatest rabbis, despite their shady backgrounds. The struggling man of repentance who overcomes his frailties is the one who achieves the highest level of human greatness.

The rabbis who have inspired me most are the ones who were willing to admit mistakes, and humbly embraced everyone, no matter who they were. These rabbis greeted everyone warmly, including the neighborhood nuns, and made sure the children from the poorest families were treated with the same respect as everyone else. They were “angels” not because they were perfect, but because they were sincerely devoted to God’s work.  

In the wake of this awful scandal, we should reconsider what we want in a rabbi. Yes, brilliance, charisma and piety are wonderful, but only if grounded first in humility and compassion. Before looking for a spiritual leader who’s an angel, let’s just find one who is a mensch.