Rabbi Rant: Struggling with Spirituality

I got trolled last week.

I’m not sharing this news because I want your pity. (If anything, I’m bragging about it – if you’re getting trolled you must be doing something right.)

I’m sharing this because it led me to an important realization.

The troll was reacting to a story I told about six months ago (as the saying goes: “better troll late than never”) where I questioned my own relationship with keeping kosher. I struggle with the costs of adhering to such a strict eating practice, and wondered aloud whether this is really what God intended.

The troll responded with his own question: “While we should support all those who are struggling spiritually, is this the type of behavior we expect from our Orthodox spiritual leaders?”  I know this was intended rhetorically, but I think it’s actually a legitimate question.

Is there no room for religious leaders to struggle spiritually? Do rabbis need to have it all figured out?

For many Jews, the answer seems to be: yes. While the standards and expectations differ, Jews across denominations want their rabbis to be “more Jewish” than they are, to uphold the most ideal version of their type of Judaism.

This desire is symptomatic of what happens when we outsource Judaism (and of the problematic ways we understand what it means to be “more Jewish”). We don’t want Judaism to die, but we’re also not going to live our own lives in a way that ensures its survival. To assuage ourselves of the guilt of not living out a sustainable Judaism, we look to the rabbi with a sigh of relief. “Phew. At least someone is making sure Judaism continues.”

And we don’t only do this with rabbis. Less observant Jews often do this with Orthodox Jews, too. “I don’t want to keep all these rules, but I’m glad someone is doing it to keep Judaism going.”

I’m the last person to lay on the guilt of Jewish continuity; I think emphasizing Jewish survival is the best way to guarantee that the Judaism that survives will be completely uninspired.

But I do think outsourcing Judaism creates a double standard that prevents us from asking ourselves the hard questions about our own relationship with Judaism. If you think your rabbi should believe in God, why don’t you think you should believe in God? If you think Jared Kushner shouldn’t fly on a plane on shabbat, why can you?

When we can finally begin to hold ourselves to the same standards as those to whom we outsource our Judaism, we might realize just how arbitrary or irrelevant those external standards are. Instead of hoping that someone somewhere else perpetuates a Judaism that you don’t connect to, try to find the things about Judaism you do connect to personally. The best way to keep Judaism alive is to keep it alive within you.

I know many people want me, as a rabbi, to have the answers. Or at least to act like I do. But I don’t. So I’m going to continue to model authentic wrestling with my Judaism. I hope that wrestling inspires others to live a more dynamic religious life. Afterall, it’s what I seek for myself. Trolls and all.

Rabbi Rant: Because I Said So

I remember the biggest temper tantrum I ever had. I was about 5 years old at a baseball game at Wrigley Field. In front of me was a lady with a big bag of peanut M&Ms, and I wanted to ask her if I could have a few. My parents said I couldn’t, and when I asked why, they gave me the answer that set me into a rage: “Because I said so.”

That classic parental go-to has exasperated children since way back when. We count down the days to adulthood when we can free ourselves from the shackles of their controlling and arbitrary ways.

So when it comes to Judaism, how do I react when told that something should matter “because God said so?” I revert to my five-year-old self at Wrigley Field, demanding a better explanation (with slightly less crying).

Few, if any of us, accept that type of religious justification. This makes connecting to the holiday of Shavuot, a day we celebrate receiving the Torah, particularly challenging. Whereas other holidays are less focused on the divine, it would seem the Torah’s significance is inextricably tied to it. We should care about the Torah because God wrote it. Once you bring God into it, there’s really no further explanation needed.

But this is a lazy approach to Judaism, and living a thoughtful Jewish life requires more thoughtful answers to basic questions like “Why care about the Torah?” “God said so” is not a full answer. (It begs the follow-up question: “But why would God say so?”) And it’s only one answer. There are many other compelling answers that aren’t rooted in God at all. (I shared 3 last year.)

Shavuot is a time to ask yourself what the Torah means to you, to entertain the possibility that it has meaning outside of its author / religious authority. It might be that those answers are equally non-compelling. At the very least, we can share some dairy desserts together. I know cheesecake is the classic choice, but I’m going to be enjoying a big bag of peanut M&Ms.

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.

 

From Mourning to Celebration in 2 Days

Today is Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers. Its scope has evolved and expanded since it was passed into Israeli law in 1963. In 1980, it was expanded to include Jewish fighters killed in pre-State battles.  In 1998, the commemoration was expanded to include Israeli victims of terror. Beginning 12 years ago, some have chosen to participate in an Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony to remember the losses on both sides of the conflict. Just as the pain from the loss of a life ripples outward and affects many beyond the inner circle of friends and family, so too the collective consciousness of suffering has been extended in Israel throughout the years. These losses are commemorated most notably by a siren that brings the country to a standstill for 2 minutes of silence.

Yom Hazikaron immediately precedes Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day of Israel’s independence. The juxtaposition of mourning and celebration can be jarring, but it is also reflective of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s resilience. The idea of moving from sadness to joy is also found throughout the Jewish tradition, reminding us that – though one cannot exist without the other – we believe that “those who sow with tears will reap with joy” (Psalms 126:5).

The Diameter Of The Bomb

By Yehuda Amichai
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

 

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: 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.

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 […]

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.