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.

The Principle of Uncertainty

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The results of the election last week were shocking; the polls did not prepare us. Like many of you, I’ve spent the past week reading countless articles trying to make sense of what happened. But I’m not only looking for political analysis, historical comparisons or discussions about the potential ramifications. I’m also searching for spiritual insights into myself and the world I live in.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I wrote about applying the wisdom from shiva to this situation. We need time to embrace our feelings of unease and not ignore them. That process is difficult and should not be rushed. But there is also the Jewish outlook of seeing everything as a growth opportunity. I’d like to start wondering what we can and should learn from this truly unprecedented moment in history.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll offer some post-election thoughts — rooted in Jewish wisdom — that perhaps will allow us to move forward with greater awareness of who we are as Jews and people.

Thought #1: The world is filled with uncertainty.

One of the unofficial theme songs for Hillary’s campaign, now tinged with a tragic irony, was a song by Demi Lovato in which she asks: what’s wrong with being confident? The answer, as we’ve learned from this election, is that confidence can blind us from reality. The world is filled with uncertainty. Faith is about recognizing that you are not God, and that so much of life is beyond your awareness and control. Doubt, theologian Paul Tillich writes, is not the opposite of faith – it is an element of faith.

We cannot predict the future. Even the prophets of the Hebrew Bible didn’t predict the future — they were only describing what would happen without a change of behavior. Nothing is guaranteed, and religion is not a fortune cookie. It is why the rabbis in the Talmud say that God’s presence was removed from Jacob when he tried to foresee the future. It’s scary to not know what will happen next – but not being able to foretell the future is also a critical feature of being human. As King Solomon asks: “Who can tell a person what the future holds under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12).

This limit to knowledge is not limited to the future. This may be the reason God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – a metaphor for the limits of human knowledge and a lesson in humility. As psychologist Eric Fromm writes in The Art of Loving: “The further we reach into the depth of our being, or someone else’s being, the more the goal of knowledge eludes us… The experience of union, with man, or religiously speaking, with God… is based on our knowledge of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.” (p. 27, 30). The more we know, the more we realize how little we know.

Many Americans were 100% sure about being right regarding this election. These postures of confidence masked a repressed vulnerability; we were afraid to consider the full range of possibilities. One lesson from this election is that we need to embrace our uncertainty. Doing so allows us to see the world more clearly as it is and not as we wished it were.

We shouldn’t give up on trying to understand ourselves and others. Wisdom and truth are holy pursuits central to religious life. These values cannot be sacrificed or compromised. There’s a danger in “not knowing.” But there’s also a danger in knowing. We should always recognize that we might be wrong, that we will never obtain complete knowledge and the full truth. Like Louis CK, (kind of), we should follow up any “Of course” with a “But maybe…”. Because the only thing we know for certain is that we will never know anything for certain.

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.

State of Mourning

For many millennial DC Jews, an intersection of three extremely liberal subsets of the population (and around 95% of whom most likely voted for Hillary Clinton), now may feel like a time for shiva. Today we mourn the loss of the America we thought we lived in, the loss of the misplaced optimism that we had, and the loss of feeling safe and secure about our present and our future.

Many of us are too broken, too hurt, too angry to do anything but weep, and the wisdom of shiva is that we need to make space for that. But the deeper wisdom of shiva is that we then must leave our home and re-enter the world. We must confront this new reality, if not today, then soon. We cannot fall back on escapism.

The Jewish response to brokenness is twofold – to learn and to hope. Religion will not solve our problems, but it can provide a space for us to come together, reflect and, when the time is right, move forward.

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.

Our Religion is Political

Just days before the most contentious presidential election in our lifetime, it would be unwise for a DC rabbi like me to rant about anything political. I’d risk alienating people. I’d risk my organization’s tax-exempt status. And let’s be honest – the last thing anyone cares about is a rabbi’s thoughts on this election.

In America, politics and religion are separate and should stay that way. After all, that’s a foundational principle of our government.

But it’s not a foundational principle of the Jewish religion.

A central objective of the entire Torah is establishing a just government. Our religious scholars have written countless commentaries analyzing and developing Judaism’s political ideas and ideals. Granted, most of these texts were written when Jews had little political power and were not written about America. But would anyone really think our religious tradition of over 3,000 years has nothing to say about this current election?

Even regarding our government, the “separation of church and state” is often misunderstood. This separation means that America has no established religion. As a religious minority group in America, we should be deeply grateful for the religious freedom that we enjoy in this country – a freedom that we have so rarely experienced throughout our long history (see Passover, Purim, Channukah, the Crusades, etc.).

But this separation does not mean that church and state have no connection to each other, and this myth misrepresents the purview of both politics and religion. Both, at their core, are about values, morality, and visions for an ideal society. This shared essence is exactly why our government, at its founding, was profoundly influenced by Judaism. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “the United States is the only country today whose political discourse is framed by the idea of covenant.” To divorce politics or religion from conversations about values, to pretend our politics aren’t a reflection of our morality, to restrict religion to “praying to God,” ignores this intersection and makes religion sterile.

Of course your rabbi shouldn’t tell you who to vote for.

Of course America should not enforce any particular religious practice or ideology.

Of course it’s scary to think about religion having real implications in the real world.

But shouldn’t it? If religion has no effect in the world, then what’s the point?

Everything that is consequential is, in one way or another, “political.” If our religion has nothing to say about “politics,” we render religion inconsequential. When I hear rabbis say “I don’t like to talk about politics,” what I hear is: “I’m too afraid of alienating people to talk about anything meaningful.”

I won’t tell you how to vote. But I will tell you how to be religious. Or more precisely, how not to be religious. If your Judaism is only about singing songs in synagogue, about feeling proud, about getting together with friends and family… and yet has nothing to say about the world you live in or how to live in it, then you certainly aren’t fully realizing what it means to be a religious Jew.

So go vote. It’s not only what responsible citizens should do. It’s also what religious Jews should do.

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.

Walk of Shame – Jewish Identity the Morning After

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Besides being Halloween, this Monday night is also the beginning of the new Jewish month of Cheshvan, known as Mar Cheshvan (“bitter Cheshvan”) because of its lack of holidays. What an ironic juxtaposition of holidays – one is associated with sweet candy, the other is associated with bitterness. I for one will be honoring both by handing trick-or-treaters fresh cuts of bitter herb.

For many of us, our Jewish identity centers on the holidays. So before we hibernate from being Jewish like little Jew bears (Jew Bear-ymore… possible Halloween costume?), emerging two months later for the next Jewish holiday of Channukah, I’d like to challenge this holiday-based connection that many of us have.

To be clear, I love Jewish holidays. They help us mark the passage of time in our own lives, they push us to reflect on certain ideas and values, and they bind us to our people’s history. Even for those who don’t believe in the history or connect to the message, Jewish holidays are still great opportunities to gather with friends and family.

f40de42d-8045-43bd-ace6-22f8258191feBut that can be hard to do when all of these holidays are not in sync with the American calendar. (The Jewish calendar is both lunar and solar, which is why Jewish holidays fall on different dates in the Gregorian calendar each year.) If you’re from outside the DMV area, it’s much easier to travel to family on American holidays like July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas than it is to take off a random day or two in the middle of the week for Rosh Hashana or Passover. And without a group of friends who live nearby and are also interested in celebrating, the holidays could be isolating and lonely.

The issue with connecting to our Judaism only on holidays goes beyond the practical challenges. It also limits Judaism to certain days during the year, allowing us to compartmentalize it in our life – to put it in a box like our menorah and seder plate, to be taken out only a few times a year. Holidays alone are not enough to build community, maintain a spiritual connection or sustain personal growth; they are infrequent and meant as a supplement to Jewish life. Tapping into Judaism only around the holidays also limits Judaism to certain historical/agricultural events and the particular values and ideas associated with them. There is no Jewish holiday for charity, sex, or gratitude… yet our tradition is far from silent on these topics.

In Judaism we welcome each major holiday with a blessing over wine (except, of course, on Yom Kippur). There’s an interesting debate in the Talmud about what to sanctify first – the wine itself, or the special day. Hillel the Elder says we bless the wine first because it is more common. To me, this answer reveals something deep about being Jewish. Yes, holidays are great, but they are by nature a break from our routine. Judaism is, at its core, meant to be lived in the day-to-day, guiding us through and occasionally elevating the mundane. Perhaps Mar Cheshvan, with no holidays in sight, is the perfect opportunity to think about what that could look like. What Jewish value, idea or practice informs, or could inform, your daily life?

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.