Rabbi Rant: The Power of Listening

Maybe I don’t know how to relax.

While most people choose to spend their vacations on a beach, last week I spent my vacation in the West Bank.

Through an organization called Encounter, I was there facilitating a group of American Jewish leaders who came to learn about Palestinian narratives. Encounter is non-partisan and has a unique educational philosophy rooted in listening, not dialogue.

I’m a strong advocate for dialogue, and I struggled for years with Encounter’s methodology. Why I am being silenced, instead of being able to respond and challenge? Also, there are at least two sides to every conflict – why are we exposing participants to such a distorted, one-sided view?

More recently, however, I’ve come to appreciate the deep spiritual power of listening.

As Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish theologian who was recently interviewed by Krista Tippett, said: “I think we infuse words with a sense of who we are. And so therefore, you’re not just saying a word; you’re communicating something that feels like your soul… There is the way within which there’s a generosity of listening. And when somebody says something to try to figure out, ‘Did I hear them correctly?’”

We all need to be heard. When we focus on our own need to be heard, we become incapable of hearing others. But when we remove the expectation that we will be heard, we are able to truly listen. In order to fulfill that need in others, we have to temporarily suppress that need within ourselves.

Listening is an essential part of our spiritual tradition. It’s the focus of a central prayer that we recite every morning and every evening – the Shema: “Listen, Israel…”.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of its importance twice a day precisely because it’s so hard to do. Or, perhaps we need the frequent reminder because we Jews are so bad at it. And that’s not my assessment, it’s God’s: “’I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people” (Exodus 32:8). As the commentator Rashi explains: “They turn the stiff back of their necks toward those who would rebuke them and refuse to listen.”

And so, to counteract this tendency, the Talmud instructs us: “Make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear.”

I’ve tried hard to internalize this message this past month. In addition to my recent trip, I’ve also been at JStreet and AIPAC conferences, and I’ve listened to Palestinians, Israelis and Americans with vastly different perspectives.

Listening isn’t about about arguing or debating; it’s about witnessing another’s experience. It won’t necessarily change our views, but it will expand our hearts.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: What Do You Worship?

It’s easy to dismiss the famous story in this week’s Torah portion of the Israelites making and worshipping the Golden Calf. I mean, do you or anyone you know really struggle with the temptation of bowing down to a statue? This story may have been relevant thousands of years ago, when people worshipped idols, but not today.

But this story isn’t only about literal idols, and interpreting it that way allows us to avoid confronting the more metaphorical idols that we do worship.

As David Foster Wallace shared in his “This is Water” graduation speech: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.”

We are immersed in a capitalist culture, symbolized by none other than a golden bull smack in the middle of Wall Street. Yes, it’s important to have drive and ambition. But like David Foster Wallace suggests, I worry that we have substituted God with money and things.

In that way, the story of the Golden Calf is more relevant today than ever before. To be clear, God can be made into an idol, too. The lesson for me is less about what to worship and more about what not to worship. There is nothing wrong with enjoying money and things, but when we elevate them to a sacred status – making it the focus of our life, believing it will make us happy, etc. – we are no different than the Israelites bowing down to the Golden Calf.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rave: Happy Hours

I love happy hours.

I know there are so many of them here in DC, but not enough, if you ask me.

Honestly, I wish every hour of the day was a happy hour. Think about how many people I could talk to about my job and where I’m from. And so many opportunities to lie about getting another drink or needing to go to the bathroom in order to get out of a conversation! If every hour was a happy hour, I’d probably be able to think up a third excuse.

One time I “went to the bathroom” to avoid someone at a happy hour, and another guy was in there… and he was doing the same thing! We really bonded about that. I didn’t catch his name but I’m sure I’ll see him again soon – probably at another happy hour.

Sometimes happy hours end super-early and I’m like “Um, it may be 7 pm, but I’m still happy, and no one can take that away from me.” Random bars shouldn’t be able to dictate when I’m happy – what a social construct, am I right?! But if I’m being honest, I’m actually not as happy when it’s not officially happy hour.

There really is no escaping it, happy hours are just the best part of my day. All day I’m at my desk thinking: “I can’t wait to order a Coors Light for only $4.” Sure, I could just go buy an 18-pack of Coors for $15 bucks, but can you enjoy that 18-pack with strangers? Definitely not – you’d have to invite friends over. And who has time for those, am I right?!

Now, l know sometimes girls can feel like happy hours are full of creepy guys asking them for their number. And it’s true, some guys are creepy. But I’m not. So please give me your number. Your real number.

I’ve heard people complain that the music at happy hours is too loud, or that the floors are sticky. Well let me tell you, as someone who spends a lot of time looking at the floor during happy hours – those floors are not that bad. And the music is so good, it’s like why wouldn’t you blast it! I know it’s not possible, but I always feel like they’re playing my favorite album. Which is Now That’s What I Call Music 23, by the way.

In summary, I love happy hours so much that I even typed up this piece while at a happy hour. It’s cool cuz it looks like I’m so important that I have to constantly be checking my phone – woah, if I get into a conversation tonight, there’s my third excuse to leave it!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are not even those of the original author. They are totally made up – Happy Purim!

Is This Weed Kosher?

Last evening, about thirty alumni of select GatherDC experiences convened at the Takoma Wellness Center – a medical marijuana dispensary owned and run by a rabbi, Jeff Kahn. It is one of only 5 dispensaries in the District, and the only dispensary in the country run by a rabbi.

Embracing Loneliness

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day – a time to appreciate a partner if you have one, or a time to feel lonely if you don’t.

Feeling lonely is, ironically, something we’ve all experienced, if not this Valentine’s Day then at some point in our lives. It’s a hard feeling to sit with – in fact, the first statement God makes about humans in the Torah is that it is not good to be alone (Genesis 2:18). At our very core, we crave connection.

But while God was able to solve this problem by creating another person, we don’t have that ability. To avoid our loneliness, we’re left to our own devices.

Literally.

Our phones, our TVs, and our computers have become an easy way feel connected to others. Yet that can actually make us feel more alone, according to a few studies highlighted in a New Yorker article on this subject. One such study: “In 1998, Robert Kraut, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, found that the more people used the Web, the lonelier and more depressed they felt. After people went online for the first time, their sense of happiness and social connectedness dropped, over one to two years, as a function of how often they used the Internet.”

In addition to technology, we also turn to sex, which should, in theory, make us feel less alone. Yet, as psychologist Eric Fromm points out in his book The Art of Loving, this too can make us feel more alone.The search for the sexual orgasm assumes a function which makes it not very different from alcoholism and drug addiction. It becomes a desperate attempt to escape the anxiety engendered by separateness, and it results in an ever increasing sense of separateness since the sexual act without love never bridges the gap between two human beings, except momentarily.”

This desire to escape through sex is captured perfectly in the surprisingly self-aware chorus of the new, aptly titled track Scared to be Lonely: “Do we need somebody just to feel like we’re alright? Is the only reason you’re holding me tonight cuz we’re scared to be lonely?”

In lieu of deep relationships, for which there are no real substitutes, perhaps it’s better to embrace this void than to run away from it or to try to fill it with a quick-fix. Our tradition, in a prayer typically recited after eating, reminds us that to lack is to be human: “Blessed are You God… Creator of many living beings and their lackings…”.

It’s scary to not have what you want. But within that empty space, we can connect to what remains – ourselves. And learning to embrace that empty space is, paradoxically, how we ultimately allow others in.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: Moving Past the Past

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When I say “Jewish History,” what’s the first word that comes to mind?

I asked this question at Gather’s Beyond the Tent Retreat last weekend. Not surprisingly, the most recurring responses were “Holocaust,” “sad,” “oppression” and “depressing.” I half-joked that this makes Judaism sound like a tough sell for those on the fence about getting more involved.

This very same weekend, the newest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend featured a song that conveyed a similar sense about our past and the way we relate to it. The song – “Remember That We Suffered” – is a minute and half, and it’s worth a watch/listen. Similar to my one-word exercise, the half-joke behind the song is that it’s hard to move beyond our depressing history.

That history, both ancient and modern, is certainly filled with terrible persecution. This Shabbat, Jews will recount our first collective experience of oppression – slavery in Egypt – as we begin reading from the book of Exodus. And though we’ve come a long way since then, anti-semitism is certainly not going anywhere. Just today, at least 25 Jewish institutions received bomb threats.

Nevertheless, I’m concerned that this negative history has become the primary way that many Jews relate to their Jewish identity.

This presents two serious challenges.

First, it can lead to a focus on our own self-interests. When a person or group is in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, it’s impossible to think of others. Yet the Torah makes it clear – our suffering should sensitize us to the suffering of others. “You are to love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Second, our negative history eclipses the more positive aspects of our identity. Even our history is more expansive than a chronicling of our suffering; Judaism has stood for more than self-preservation and resilience. Besides, there are other ways to connect to Judaism outside of our history. It’s easy to dismiss or make fun of Judaism by defining it negatively; it’s harder to explore the ways that Judaism can be more positive, active and meaningful in our lives.

This weekend, our Beyond the Tent participants did exactly that. The more we can commit to this endeavor, the more we can move past our past and into a more hopeful future.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Time to Leave La La Land

I remember a teacher once said to me: “Want to know what you really value? Check your internet browser history.”

I don’t think that’s the best way to understand yourself (most of my time is not spent on my computer), but our online activity certainly reflects a part of who we are – sometimes a part that we’d rather ignore.

Similarly, I think the movies that we choose to watch reveal something about our desires, wishes, and fantasies. And based on what we went to see in 2016, I’m concerned.

As a New York Times article, this week reported, “not one movie rooted in a real-life setting was among the top 10 box office performers.”

That’s a real shame – this year’s “real-life” movies, such as Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, were its best.

Cultural preferences aside, I’m worried that this desire to escape real life might also be affecting the way we think about spirituality.

A spiritual person is often understood as someone, alone on a mountaintop or in a monastery, who spends all day meditating in order to connect to something beyond this world. It’s the spirituality portrayed in movies like Dr. Strange – one full of mystical secrets and magical powers.

That is certainly a legitimate spiritual orientation. It’s comforting to believe that life has a hidden meaning that we can access if only we break through its chaotic surface. Who knows? Maybe we’re all living in a Matrix-esque illusion.

But there is a very different spiritual orientation rooted less in the extraordinary and more in the ordinary. This approach finds God within, rather than outside of, our shared human existence. It seeks meaning in connection to ourselves, each other and our surroundings rather than an escape from those things.

Theologians have been writing about the tension between these two spiritual orientations – “Transcendence” and “Immanence” – for millennia. Judaism, like any rich spiritual tradition, has always struggled to balance both.

When our movie choices reflect a disproportionate interest in fantasy at the expense of reality, I fear we may be dismissing the spiritual potential of what is right in front of us. Movies can open our eyes to the wonder of the everyday, or they can distract us from it by taking us to La La Land. It all depends on what we choose to see.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Our Interfaith Relationship with America

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The hardest part about being in a relationship is navigating differences. But those differences also give each relationship its dynamic, creative energy that ultimately sustains it.

This past week, I was in Israel helping to lead a group of 18 couples on a program called Honeymoon Israel. Of each couple, at least one of the partners had never been to Israel before. The goal of the program is to allow each couple to explore their individual and shared relationship with Judaism and Israel as they think about what their future lives and family together might look like. Representative of the current demographics of American Jews, most couples are interfaith and most of the Jewish participants identify more as “cultural Jews” than as “religious Jews.”

The first night we arrived, we heard a talk from Avraham Infeld about the challenge of being a modern Jew in America. He posed the question: How can we have a rich Jewish identity while still being engaged with the secular society in which we live? He mentioned that this challenge is relatively recent (before the enlightenment, Jews didn’t have an option to identify with a nationality or ethnicity other than “Jewish”). It’s also one that we as Jews still haven’t figured out (most American Jews today either don’t see a contradiction between their American and Jewish identities or clearly prioritize one over the other).

On a free evening last week, I went to visit a friend who lives in Jerusalem. He moved to Israel after determining that being a religious Jew in America was too challenging for him. The cost (financially and socially) of sending his future kids to Jewish day school or Jewish camp, of eating only at kosher restaurants, etc. was simply too high for him in America. Jewish education is free and kosher restaurants are everywhere. As a result, Jewish identity in Israel just happens and doesn’t require a lot of sacrifice or particular intentionality.

I thought about my friend when, a few days later during a full-group discussion, one participant argued that interfaith couples, unlike couples where both partners are Jewish, can’t simply assume that their children will be raised Jewish. He said that being interfaith requires intentionality, negotiation and compromise in every single decision they make as parents. Despite the negative rhetoric that exists in many parts of the Jewish community about interfaith relationships, these couples are faced with questions and conversations that are often ignored by two Jewish partners. Perhaps the very fact that Jewish identity doesn’t “just happen” for these couples can paradoxically lead to a more intentional Jewish identity than the one of my friend in Jerusalem.

I wonder if being Jewish in America is like being in an interfaith relationship. Our country’s culture isn’t Jewish, so we have to work hard to define and maintain our Jewish identity. There’s always the temptation to drop our Jewishness or move to a Jewish society — where the tension between personal identity and the dominant culture doesn’t exist. But I think it’s possible that this very tension can create a deeper relationship with Judaism. Confronting our differences, whether between us and our partner or us and our society, can be the beginning of transformational growth.

Soul(less) Cycle

rabbi-rant-bannerI hate to be the one to say it, but spinning is not a spiritual act.

Feeling healthy, releasing endorphins, pushing yourself to the limits… all great things. It’s important to exercise and to feel good about your body, which Hillel the Elder says is made in the image of God (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3).

But co-opting the word “soul” distracts from the fact that SoulCycle and other places like it are fundamentally focused on the physical body. Without explicit checks and balances in place, I believe that focus can lead to the opposite of spirituality: an approach to life that is concerned only with what can be seen and measured.

Certainly, a person can access spirituality through physical means. In fact, a spirituality divorced from physicality is equally as problematic as physicality trying to pass itself off as spirituality. Connecting spiritually does not require magical chants or escaping to foreign lands. Jewish spirituality, according to the Torah, is grounded in our present reality and accessible in our day-to-day lives. “It is not in the heavens… nor is it beyond the sea…” (Deuteronomy 30:12-13).

Spirituality happens in the intersection between body and soul. It connects the physical to that which lies beyond the physical. Some might call that God. Others might call that our inner conscience. And others might call that the unknown mystery of the universe.

Whatever it is, it’s really hard to connect to. And without an intentional practice, hard work and constant vigilance, that connection to beyond the physical can easily be broken.

It’s definitely nothing like riding a bike.

Do you do find spirituality in spinning and want to counter-rant? Let me know in the comments…

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

An Unlikely Gratitude

rabbi-rant-bannerLike many of you, regardless of which way you voted, I’ve been wondering what this recent election means for American Jews – not only regarding our future safety, but also regarding our sense of community and cohesion. Will the vastly differing reactions by American Jews to President-elect Trump further split us apart? Will Thanksgiving this year be a total disaster? It’s possible.

But if a conversation with my father this week is any indication, this election might actually bring us closer together.

What, over the last few years, has been the single greatest source of division and tension within the American Jewish community? Ask just about anyone, and you’ll get the same answer. It’s the third rail, the topic-that-shall-not-be-named, the elephant in the room that you either can’t talk about or can’t not talk about: Israel.

To be super-reductionist (it’s a rant, I can do what I want! Which includes making up words like super-reductionist…), the main source of division for American Jews around Israel is a disagreement about the most significant type of threat to Israel: threats to Israel’s security or threats to Israel’s moral character.

Each group seems to care a lot about their threat and not very much about the other side’s threat.

Those of us on the “left” underestimated the threat of anti-Semitism. One of the core assumptions in my teaching about Jewish identity in America was that we need to move past anti-Semitism. I thought fears about anti-Semitism were generated by older-generation-Jews like my dad who, blinded by the shadow of the Holocaust, couldn’t see that Jews are fully accepted here. I was wrong; the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the US has painfully shown me the naivete and danger of that mentality.

Those on the “right” often dismissed the ethical concerns that come with Israel’s power. Jews would never compromise our values for the sake of our own interests. I believe it will become increasingly clear in the coming months that this is not necessarily so. Jews, like anyone else, can and do become corrupted by the influences of power and money. The future will continue to present moral dilemmas for Jewish institutions, and their choices may shine a light on the ethical costs of acquiring unwavering support for Israel.

On the phone with my dad, I told him that I was wrong to treat anti-Semitism so cavalierly. He told me that he was wrong to accept the challenges to liberal, democratic values in Israel that he would never accept here in America. We still don’t agree on Israel, but we were able to appreciate each other’s perspective in a way we hadn’t been able to before now. It wasn’t an upbeat conversation, and it didn’t exactly leave me hopeful for the next four years.

But it was comforting knowing that my dad and I, and perhaps the larger American Jewish community, might be able to navigate our fear and uncertainty with a shared sense of concern and understanding.grateful1

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.