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Rabbi Rant: The Struggle Is-real

As the great poet Kanye West once pondered: “And the weather so breezy; man, why can’t life always be this easy?”

Life is hard, and it seems to get harder the older we get. Like all great minds, Yeezy simply gives expression to our deepest desires.

It’s no wonder, then, that some people have often turned to religion looking for reassurance, the ability to transcend our daily struggles, the comfort of knowing we are doing the right thing, or the guarantee that it will all work out in the end (if not for everyone, then at least for us).

Don’t believe this is how people actually relate to religion? Ask your rabbis (or other clergy) what happened to their attendance in services after the election last year. (Not that numbers matter all that much… they clearly didn’t for the election.) This “religious” drive is why Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” – many people relate to it as a calm-inducing drug.

The Torah offers a very different understanding of what it means to be religious, and to be human. In the very first sentence of this week’s Torah reading, we read: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Nothing all that remarkable.

Yet the rabbis read into the word “settled” a deeper longing for tranquility. Jacob has had a difficult life; in his old age, he justifiably wants some peace and quiet. In direct response, God disrupts his life once again through the ensuing drama of his son Joseph (whose brothers sell him into slavery while convincing his father he was killed by wild beasts).

As the biblical commentator Rashi explains: “[When] the righteous seek to dwell in tranquility – God says: ‘Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in tranquility in this world?’”

Life isn’t supposed to be easy – you can rest peacefully when you’re dead.

Instead of encouraging retreat from challenge, Judaism pushes us toward it. The tough moments in life are the moments where we grow the most.

Almost 2000 years before it became a workout slogan, Rabbi Ben Hei Hei said: “According to the pain is the gain.”

It’s ironic that Jacob wanted to settle down, because his name was changed to Israel (which means, “to wrestle with God”) after wrestling with a man/angel just a few chapters earlier. Yet he still retains the name Jacob, which means “heel” and alludes to his tendency to run away, perhaps reminding us that we can never fully overcome our urge to avoid the harder moments.

This is why we need Judaism. Not to provide the easy answers, but to ask the hard questions.

We are called the children of Israel. To live up to our namesake, we must constantly choose to wrestle, instead of escape. It’s the critical first step in improving ourselves and the world around us.

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 – Proud, Jewish and Disconnected? Beyond the Tent Might be the Answer

You don’t have to look very hard to find an excuse for not wanting to connect Jewishly.

Many of us can find one by simply thinking back to childhood:

-You hated Hebrew school.
-Synagogue was boring.
-Your Hillel was too religious.
-A rabbi once said something offensive or hurtful.
-Being Jewish made you feel like an outsider at school.
-You or your family were judged or even alienated for “how” Jewish you were or weren’t.

Others of us may gravitate toward present-day excuses:

-You feel you don’t have enough Jewish knowledge to engage.
-You didn’t have the same experiences that every other Jew seems to have had.
-Your beliefs and values seem incompatible with the Jewish community.
-You’re worried about Judaism eclipsing other important pieces of your identity.
-Jewish programs seem overly focused on helping you find a partner.
-It feels like everyone already knows each other.

These (and there are many more) are all legitimate reasons to leave your Jewish identity unexplored, and I’m sure most people reading this will find one or more of these reasons resonates.

Yet, an overwhelming percentage of American Jews (94%) are proud to be Jewish.

And herein lies the paradox of 21st century American Jewry – we’re proud of something that we feel disconnected from and haven’t taken the time to seriously explore.

It’s not that we’re not open to exploring our Judaism or feeling more connected to it. It’s just that we have so many paths out and so few paths in.

This is why GatherDC created the Beyond the Tent Retreat – to present a few alternative paths into Jewish life that are compelling and meaningful for us today. This retreat won’t erase your Jewish baggage or resolve all the problems with the Jewish community. But it will validate your experience and allow you and other like-minded Jewish 20s and 30s in DC to take ownership over your Jewish identity.

It’s not hard to find the type of Judaism that doesn’t work for you. Why not spend a little time searching for a type of Judaism that does?

Our upcoming retreat is July 21-23, so if you’re interested and available, you should apply today! Early applications close on Friday, May 26.

 

Rabbi Rant: The Real Lesson in “S-Town”

If you haven’t listened to the S-Town podcast yet, you should.

Not only because everybody else is doing it (though that does seem to be the case – it’s the fastest podcast to ever reach 15 million downloads or streams on Apple Podcasts).

And not necessarily because it’s the greatest podcast of all time. (I think it’s a great piece of storytelling through journalism, but it’s neither revolutionary nor profound.)

Its beauty stems from the simplicity of its aim – to get to know someone else as best as possible, without judgment.

This endeavor is perhaps best encapsulated in a short dialogue between Brian Reed, the host and journalist, and a man named Tyler.

Tyler: Do you see me being a bad person?
Brian: Do I?
Tyler: Yeah.
Brian: No man, I see you as a complicated, normal person, you know?
Tyler: Yeah.
Brian: I mean, I, I disagree with some of your decisions, but you also, you’ve had a very different life experience than I’ve had.

This attitude, of openness to others’ unique stories, is the key to good journalism.

It’s also one that Jewish sages encourage and that more of us should embrace.

By prioritizing curiosity over judgment, we can let go of both the illusion that we understand each other and also the need to force each other into our ideological boxes.

Perhaps this is why the rabbis of the Talmud offer a surprising blessing for one who sees a large congregation of Jews:

Blessed are you God Who knows all secrets. [Why this blessing? Because] their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other (BT Brachot 58a).

When confronted with differences, our tendency is to try to focus on similarities. This blessing reminds us to lean into our differences. We may all be in the same place, but we’ve all taken a different path to get there. Remembering this, paradoxically, may be the only way to keep us together.

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.

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.

Community Gone Missing

community

The line I hear most when getting coffee with Jewish 20s and 30s around the city is: “I want to get more involved in the Jewish community.”

Let’s set aside, for now, the disquieting reality that “the Jewish community” doesn’t exist. Our organization’s name, Gather the Jews, might fuel this misconception by implying that there is a central place where ALL the Jews gather – spoiler alert: there isn’t. (If you’re interested in reading more about a variety of issues related to “the Jewish community,” check out the most recent issue of Sh’ma Now, for which I wrote the introductory essay.) And let’s also shelve the questions of what “getting involved” in a Jewish community looks like and why that is so important to Jews.

Before we can have those important conversations, we first need to address a more basic issue that is not unique to being Jewish: We have lost the concept of community. So what is a community? I’ve heard the word used to describe people at a concert, a yoga class, a local coffee shop, and fellow commuters on the Metro. When it is used to describe any gathering of people, it loses its meaning and we lose the aspiration to belong to one.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker elder and activist, recently shared: “I went to Washington, D.C. and became a community organizer working on issues of racial justice. Five years later, I realized that I was trying to lead people towards something that I had never really experienced for myself, namely community.”

What components are critical to help create an authentic community? I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts, but here are four criteria of mine:

1) A community is more than a feeling – you need to actually communicate with each other, learn about each other holistically, and know what is going on in each others’ lives. That you recognize the same 15 people at your spin class each week is not enough.

2) A community is not limited to a particular time. Of course communities can dissolve, but they don’t form instantly and shouldn’t have a pre-set expiration date. Something that happens once or twice – like High Holiday services – constitutes only an isolated experience or program and is not the basis for an ongoing community.

3) A community is also not limited to a particular place. There needs to be a way for people within the community to encounter each other regularly, and a particular location can help facilitate that. But a community cannot be defined by any one place. Sorry, Birthright bus, but if you don’t stay connected after returning to the States, then that community has ceased to exist.

4) A community is more than a group of friends – it brings people together for a larger purpose. That purpose can be artistic, political, or intellectual (to name a few) but it must be more than social.

Few of us, if any, have experienced a community that meets all of these criteria. These types of communities are hard to find and difficult to build. But our tendency to put the label community on any gathering of people might reflect a desire to belong to something deeper. And acknowledging this need might provide us with the motivation to start exploring ways to fulfill it.

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.