Category Archives: Rabbis

The Blessings of Health and Choice vs. the Curse of Coercion

Stand Up Monday – Rally at Texas Capitol:
July 1, 2013
Clergy Opening Remarks:
“The Blessings of Health and Choice vs. the Curse of Coercion”
Rabbi Rick Brody

“Enough!” to the invasive curse of meddling lawmakers who seek to deprive women their rights.  “Yes!” to the blessings that come with the safe, free exercise of conscience. 

[Video courtesy of Roz Altmejd]

I am blessed to stand here today with courageous and resolute Texas women. I stand here as a rabbi, as a husband, and a father. As the son of Democrat and Republican parents who are both ardently pro-choice. Parents who adopted two newborn children—before a surprise pregnancy with me. Yes: my parents, my siblings, and I all know—intimately—that what’s unplanned can become a blessing; but only when choices are made freely, without the curse of coercion. There is no blessing in treating a woman’s body contrary to her wishes. And even the best-laid plans can intrude on blessing—when a woman’s health is at risk or when a fetus holds no promise of a healthy life. My tradition shares both a deep reverence for the blessing of potential life and also this adamant conviction: the blessing of a pregnant woman’s life takes precedence over the potential life of her fetus at all times—and up until the moment of birth, the fetus is part of her body.

But with clinics beyond her access, or if her doctor is denied privileges at hospitals asserting their religious views, or if certain fetal complications are not yet detectable, or when women find themselves cursed with despair in back alleys—then, the state has endangered women’s health and the state has cursed their dignity. By imposing one moral conclusion to such a profoundly complex set of choices, the state tramples my religious teachings and violates the most basic religious freedoms that are the hallmark of this great nation.

In my tradition, a pregnant woman is the best judge of her own body’s needs, even over the judgments of her doctor. And many extend the welfare of the mother to include her emotional health—in direct contrast to the current, repressive legislation. The curse of lifelong torment to a woman’s mind is no less a part of her body and no less real. Yet those with one narrow religious view in Texas seek to tell all women and their health-care providers and their religious leaders that they can make better choices for Texas women. For the sake of religious liberty, for the sake of the dignity of choice for all women, and for the sake of women’s safety and health, I stand today with Texas women and say “Enough!” to the invasive curse of meddling lawmakers who seek to deprive women their rights. And I say “Yes!” to the blessings that come with the safe, free exercise of conscience.

At the July 1 rally, immediately following this speech, Rabbi Rachel Kobrin delivered this stirring call to action.

Masechet Chopsticks (Extended Version)

Masechet Chopsticks

(Extended Version)

by Rabbi Rick Brody & Rabbi Rachel Kobrin

(with inspiration from: Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, Rob Kutner, Carolyn Austin, Bill Seligman, Sam Rosenstein, and Rabbi Ben Newman)

A lost Talmudic tractate has been discovered that answers age-old rabbinic questions about the appropriate way for Jews to fully accomplish the obligations associated with eating Chinese food on December 24th/25th.

[Warning: May require actual Talmudic experience!]

(For a simpler, more “user-friendly” version of this tractate, click here. Additions in this extended version appear in bold.)

MISHNAH 1: Our Rabbis ask: When does one begin the Festive Meal of Chopsticks? Beit Shammai omrim [The School of Shammai say]: “On the 24th day of the month of December, because one should ‘larutz la’asot mitzvah’ [run to perform a holy act].” Beit Hillel omrim [The School of Hillel say]: “Through the entirety of the night of the 24th and the day of the 25th is mutar [permitted]. But the mehadrin [those who wish to embellish their observance] wait until the final hours of the 25th, because we ‘ma’alin ba’kodesh v’lo moridin [ascend in holiness and do not descend].” V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: “To extend the simchah [joyous occasion].”

GEMARA: Tanu Rabbanan [Our Sages taught in an earlier saying]: Amar Rebbe Szechuan [Rabbi Szechuan said], “I was a man of 70 and had always consumed the Feast of Chopsticks before the end of the first watch on the 24th. Once I fell asleep while watching The Sound of Music and slept through the entirety of the following day. When I awoke on the night of the 25th, my food was still warm! From that day on, I have followed the teaching of Beit Hillel.”

And until when does the Festive Meal satiate us? Amar Rav [Rav said]: 1 hour. Amar Sh’muel [Sh’muel said]: 1/2 hour.

What do we do with leftovers? Ta Shma [Come learn from this teaching]: Amar Rav Shimon hachacham [Rav Simon the wise said] in the name of Rav Yaakov the Tzadik [righteous one], “We keep them, she’ne’emar [as it is written], Shamor [Keep] (Deut. 5:11). Keitzad [How]? It is preferable that one should use small square cardboard containers with wire handles to contain the notar [remainder] of the feast, so as to prolong the mitzvah [sacred act] of the Feast of Chopsticks.” V’tov lehachmir [And it is good to be strict about this].

V’ika d’amri [And there are those who say]: “Al tikra Shamor, ella S’more [Don’t read the verse as ‘Shamor,’ but rather as ‘S’more‘].” Mai nafka minah [What is the practical result of this (reading of the verse)]? Are we really expected to eat s’mores on the Feast of Chopsticks? No, rather, it [the creative reading of the verse] comes to teach us that we shall eat dessert she’lo oto ta’am [that is not of the same flavor (as the meal), i.e. not of the same cuisine]. Ka mashma lan [That is what it is teaching us]. Mai [Why]? D’ein mazal l’yisrael [Because fortune-telling doesn’t pertain to the Jewish people]. Tanya [An earlier teaching]: “Is it assur [forbidden] to eat ugot mazal [cakes of fortune]? No, mutar [it is permitted]. But one has not sufficiently embellished the mitzvah [sacred act].” V’ika d’amri [And there are those who say] that one has not fulfilled the obligation [unless one eats a dessert from another cuisine].

V’tanya [Another earlier teaching]: “Is it assur [forbidden] to eat ugot mazal [cakes of fortune-telling]? No, mutar [it is permitted]. Divrei chachamim [These are the words of the Sages.] V’amar Rebbe Mordechai [But Rabbi Mordechai says], ‘Asur. K‘var lanu chag le’echol pat haba’ah b’kisnin [It’s forbidden. We already have a holiday for eating cake-like items with filling].’ Amru lo [They said to him], ‘No one eats the filling of ugot mazal.’ Chazar lahem [He replied to them], ‘Kakatuv [It is written]: “U’mei’echa t’malei et ha’megillah hazot [‘Then he said to me, “O Human, eat this megillah/scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth’ (Ezek. 3:3)]. V’af al pi she’ein lanu n’vuah [And even though we don’t have prophesy, i.e. only a prophet such as Ezekiel may eat a scroll and only when commanded directly by God], someone might be tempted to eat the words of the cakes of fortune-telling, v’zeh assur [and this is forbidden (since there is no prophecy)]. V’od [And further], ein megillah ella Megillat Esther [there is no “megillah” other than the Megillah for Purim; i.e. if we ever were to eat words, it would have to be at Purim; or, this is the prooftext for why we eat hamantaschen].'”

Pligi bah [there was a difference of opinion about it (the original question)]: D’tanya [For, as we learn in this earlier teaching]: “Amar [said] Rabbi Ben: ‘Eat on the 24th so there will be notar [leftovers] which you must consume before the end of the next day’ (Lev. 19:6).” Ee hachi [If this is so], are we then not keeping the leftovers [beyond the day of the festival]? Lo sh’na [There is no contradiction]: Hacha [Here, in the case of finishing the leftovers by the end of the festival] k’mi she’omer ha’halachah l’fi Beit Shammai [is in agreement with one who says the law is according to the House of Shammai, i.e. that we eat on the 24th]; hatam [there, in the case of having leftovers beyond the festival], k’mi she’omer ha’halachah l’fi Beit Hillel [is in agreement with one who says the law is according to the House of Hillel, i.e. that we eat on the 25th]. And for Beit Shammai [not to have any leftovers beyond the festival], this is in keeping with a k’lal [general rule] of Shammai, who said, “Tafasta meruba lo tafasta [If you have seized a lot, you have not seized (anything at all)].”

Meytivey [A response was proposed] diklal Shammai [regarding the general rule of Shammai, i.e. “If you have seized a lot…”]: Does it apply here? If he wishes that  one will not seize meruba [a lot], does this not accord more closely with the one who eats less and does have notar [leftovers]? Is he not decrying the glutton who overindulges at the feast, leaving nothing behind? No, it does apply here: He is decrying the one who ordered too much.

Kashya [There is a problem]: Amar [Said] Rav Panda, “Once I saw Rav Tso begin his feast on the 25th and even still he had leftovers. Min hu [He is a ‘min,’ a sectarian, one who has broken ranks with the community].”

Then a bat kol [a heavenly voice] announced,“Eilu v’eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayyim hen. V’lo min hu [Both these and these and these (the ways of Beit Shammai, Beit Hillel, and Rav Tso) are the words of the living God. And he (Rav Tso) is not a sectarian].”

Tiyuvta d’Rav Panda, tiyuvta [This was a complete answer to Rav Panda, ending his argument].

Lo min [he is not a sectarian]. B’ma’arva [in the West], amri [they say]: “Lo mein.” V’kacha amrinan [And thus do we say]: “Lo mein.” V’zeh k’lal gadol batorah [And this is a great general rule from the Torah].

MISHNAH 2: Until what time may one fulfill her obligation of eating the Festive Meal of Chopsticks? Ma’aseh [A story] of Rebbe Hunan: His daughters were at a Matzo Ball that ran into the early hours of the 26th. When they came home, he was awake waiting for them with organic, non-GMO bean curd and brown rice. They consumed it because they still couldn’t tell the difference between blue and green.

GEMARA: Why bean curd? L’zecher [ as a reminder of] how the Kadosh Baruch Hu [Holy Blessed One, i.e. God] conquered “tofu va’vohu” [primordial chaos, formlessness and emptiness (Gen. 1:2)]. V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: Bean curd should only be eaten b’choshech [in darkness (see Gen. 1:2)].

MISHNAH 3: B’Shabbat, lo ochlin b’chopsticks [On the Sabbath, we don’t eat with chopsticks].

GEMARA: Een [Can this be so]? Hava amina [I would have thought] that there is no Festival of Chopsticks on Shabbat [i.e. it would be postponed to the next day] mishum ‘Shamor’ [on account of the rules of Shabbat that forbid certain activities on the Sabbath such as cooking or dining out]. Talmud lomar [For this reason, Scripture comes to teach us], ‘V’karata la’shabbat oneg [(If) you call the Sabbath a delight (Isa. 58:13)].’ V’lait oneg ella Gan Aiden [And there is no “delight” other than the Garden of Eden], like Eden WokV’ika d’amri [And there are those who say] “China Delight,” or “Peking Delight,” or “Imperial Delight” or “Canton Delight.”

Mai Tayma [What is the reason for this rule about not using chopsticks on the Sabbath]? L’zecher [As a reminder of] “the man who gathered sticks” (Num. 15:32). V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: “So that one will not be tempted to build a raft.” But then someone–some say it was B’ruriyah, some say it was Bill, another well-regarded spouse of an esteemed sage who was able to keep up with the chachamim [Sages]–came and taught: “We don’t eat with chopsticks on Shabbat because the friction of 2 chopsticks rubbing together might start a fire, which is assur d’oraita [forbidden by the Torah] (Ex. 35:3).”

MISHNAH 4: Who shall prepare the festive meal? Anyone who is bak’i [expert] in the preparation, no matter her country of origin. But the tavern may not have the word “dragon” in its name.

GEMARA: “Dragon” is a zecher [reminder] of livyatan [leviathan], which is not to be consumed except on Sukkot biy’mot hamashiach [on the Festival of Booths in the time of the Messiah].

Mai “Festival of Chopsticks” [Why do we have this festival in the first place]? There are answers from the ba’alei chochmah l’vasar v’dam [those who explain things using tools of secular knowledge], v’lait lan mi’kra [but we don’t have (an answer) from Scripture]. Lahen (Therefore)– Teiku! [Let it stand unresolved; or Tishbi Yitareitz Kushiot U‘va’ayot, Tishbi (Elijah the Prophet) will answer (unresolved) difficulties and problems.] And this is why the taverns always provide one extra container of rice [beyond the number of people dining]. This is kufsat Eliyahu [the container for Elijah].

And at what time does one attend the cinema? The Sages discuss this she’eilah

 at length in Masechet [Tractate] Cinema, which has yet to be recovered from an obscure cave in Austin, Texas.

Masechet Chopsticks

Masechet Chopsticks

by Rabbi Rick Brody & Rabbi Rachel Kobrin

(with inspiration from: Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, Rob Kutner, Carolyn Austin, Bill Seligman, Sam Rosenstein, and Rabbi Ben Newman)

A lost Talmudic tractate has been discovered that answers age-old rabbinic questions about the appropriate way for Jews to fully accomplish the obligations associated with eating Chinese food on December 24th/25th.

[For a more advanced, Talmud-intensive version of this tractate, please see the Extended Version.]

MISHNAH 1: Our Rabbis ask: When does one begin the Festive Meal of Chopsticks? Beit Shammai omrim [The School of Shammai say]: “On the 24th day of the month of December, because one should ‘larutz la’asot mitzvah’ [run to perform a holy act].” Beit Hillel omrim [The School of Hillel say]: “Through the entirety of the night of the 24th and the day of the 25th is mutar [permitted]. But the mehadrin [those who wish to embellish their observance] wait until the final hours of the 25th, because we ‘ma’alin ba’kodesh v’lo moridin [ascend in holiness and do not descend].” V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: “To extend the simchah [joyous occasion].”

GEMARA: Tanu Rabbanan [Our Sages taught in an earlier saying]: Amar Rebbe Szechuan [Rabbi Szechuan said], “I was a man of 70 and had always consumed the Feast of Chopsticks before the end of the first watch on the 24th. Once I fell asleep while watching The Sound of Music and slept through the entirety of the following day. When I awoke on the night of the 25th, my food was still warm! From that day on, I have followed the teaching of Beit Hillel.”

And until when does the Festive Meal satiate us? Amar Rav [Rav said]: 1 hour. Amar Sh’muel [Sh’muel said]: 1/2 hour.

What do we do with leftovers? Ta Shma [Come learn from this teaching]: Amar Rav Shimon hachacham [Rav Simon the wise said] in the name of Rav Yaakov the Tzadik [righteous one], “We keep them, she’ne’emar [as it is written], Shamor [Keep] (Deut. 5:11). Keitzad [How]? It is preferable that one should use small square cardboard containers with wire handles to contain the notar [remainder] of the feast, so as to prolong the mitzvah [sacred act] of the Feast of Chopsticks.” V’tov lehachmir [And it is good to be strict about this].

V’ika d’amri [And there are those who say]: “Al tikra Shamor, ella S’more [Don’t read the verse as ‘Shamor,’ but rather as ‘S’more‘].” Mai nafka minah [What is the practical result of this (reading of the verse)]? Are we really expected to eat s’mores on the Feast of Chopsticks? No, rather, it [the creative reading of the verse] comes to teach us that we shall eat dessert that is not of the same flavor (as the meal), [i.e. not of the same cuisine]. Ka mashma lan [That is what it is teaching us]. Why? D’ein mazal l’yisrael [Because fortune-telling doesn’t pertain to the Jewish people]. Tanya [An earlier teaching]: “Is it assur [forbidden] to eat ugot mazal [cakes of fortune-telling]? No, mutar [it is permitted]. But one has not sufficiently embellished the mitzvah [sacred act].” V’ika d’amri [And there are those who say] that one has not fulfilled the obligation [unless one eats a dessert from another cuisine].

[Click here for the Extended Version of the Tractate.]

Pligi bah [there was a difference of opinion about it (the original question)]: D’tanya [For, as we learn in this earlier teaching]: “Amar [said] Rabbi Ben: ‘Eat on the 24th so there will be notar [leftovers] which you must consume before the end of the next day’ (Lev. 19:6).” Ee hachi [If this is so], are we then not keeping the leftovers [beyond the day of the festival]? Lo sh’na [There is no contradiction]: Hacha [Here, in the case of finishing the leftovers by the end of the festival] is in agreement with Beit Shammai [i.e. that we eat on the 24th]; hatam [there, in the case of having leftovers beyond the festival] is in agreement with Beit Hillel [i.e. that we eat on the 25th].

Kashya [There is a problem]: Amar [Said] Rav Panda, “Once I saw Rav Tso begin his feast on the 25th and even still he had leftovers. Min hu [He is a ‘min,’ a sectarian, one who has broken ranks with the community].”

Then a bat kol [a heavenly voice] announced,“Eilu v’eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayyim hen. V’lo min hu [Both these and these and these (the ways of Beit Shammai, Beit Hillel, and Rav Tso) are the words of the living God. And he (Rav Tso) is not a sectarian].”

Lo min [he is not a sectarian]. B’ma’arva [in the West], they say: “Lo mein.” And thus do we say: “Lo mein.”

MISHNAH 2: Until what time may one fulfill her obligation of eating the Festive Meal of Chopsticks? Ma’aseh [A story] of Rebbe Hunan: His daughters were at a Matzo Ball that ran into the early hours of the 26th. When they came home, he was awake waiting for them with organic, non-GMO bean curd and brown rice. They consumed it because they still couldn’t tell the difference between blue and green.

GEMARA: Why bean curd? L’zecher [ as a reminder of] how the Kadosh Baruch Hu [Holy Blessed One, i.e. God] conquered “tofu va’vohu” [primordial chaos, formlessness and emptiness (Gen. 1:2)]. V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: Bean curd should only be eaten b’choshech [in darkness (see Gen. 1:2)].

MISHNAH 3: B’Shabbat, lo ochlin b’chopsticks [On the Sabbath, we don’t eat with chopsticks].

GEMARA: Een [Can this be so]? Do we eat [the Feast] on the Sabbath? Talmud lomar [For this reason, Scripture comes to teach us], ‘V’karata la’shabbat oneg [(If) you call the Sabbath a delight (Isa. 58:13)].’ And there is no “delight” other than the Garden of Eden, like EdenWok. And there are those who say, “China Delight,” or “Peking Delight,” or “Imperial Delight” or “Canton Delight.”

Mai Tayma [What is the reason for this rule about not using chopsticks on the Sabbath]? L’zecher [As a reminder of] “the man who gathered sticks” (Num. 15:32). V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: “So that one will not be tempted to build a raft.” But then someone–some say it was B’ruriyah, some say it was Bill, another well-regarded spouse of an esteemed sage who was able to keep up with the chachamim [Sages]–came and taught: “We don’t eat with chopsticks on Shabbat because the friction of 2 chopsticks rubbing together might start a fire, which is assur d’oraita [forbidden by the Torah] (Ex. 35:3).”

[Click here for the Extended Version of the Tractate.]

MISHNAH 4: Who shall prepare the festive meal? Anyone who is bak’i [expert] in the preparation, no matter her country of origin. But the tavern may not have the word “dragon” in its name.

GEMARA: “Dragon” is a zecher [reminder] of livyatan [leviathan], which is not to be consumed except on Sukkot biy’mot hamashiach [on the Festival of Booths in the time of the Messiah].

Mai “Festival of Chopsticks” [Why do we have this festival in the first place]? There are answers from those who explain things using tools of secular knowledge, but we don’t have (an answer) from Scripture. Therefore, Teiku! [Let it stand unresolved; or Tishbi Yitareitz Kushiot U‘va’ayot, Tishbi (Elijah the Prophet) will answer (unresolved) difficulties and problems.] And this is why the taverns always provide one extra container of rice [beyond the number of people dining]. This is kufsat Eliyahu [the container for Elijah].

And at what time does one attend the cinema? The Sages discuss this she’eilah

at length in Masechet [Tractate] Cinema, which has yet to be recovered from an obscure cave in Austin, Texas.

—————————————————————————————————-

A different perspective: from the folk tradition

(not part of the legal, rabbinic discussion and not halachically approved.)

Or this one:

[Click here for the Extended Version of the Tractate.]

Rosh HaShanah Sermon: What Do I Stand For?: “Some Nights,” “Psalm 27,” and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

“What Do I Stand For?”: Some Nights, Psalm 27,
and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773
Rabbi Rick Brody

We are at war. The awful violence last week in Libya reminded us all too well of this sobering fact. Even here in our own country, fanaticism of all kinds and an ugly lust for violence has made our world, wherever we are, a very dangerous place. But there’s another war raging even closer to home—within each of us—a war of confusion, of conflicting feelings of purpose, of remorse, of struggle to be better people. It’s a war in which we try to manage the onslaught of responsibilities, concerns, and challenges that threaten our emotional security or a sense of stability in this life. And it is, in many ways, what the coming days are all about.

In the current popular song “Some Nights,” by the band Fun [on p. 2 of the linked lyric page: please click here], the singer cries out in the third stanza, “This is it boys, this is war,” words that I have put in bold-face. But if you notice in the stanza immediately above and below, the essence of the war he’s fighting is the asking of deep questions—which I have also bold-faced. “What do I stand for?” “Who am I?” These are the fundamental questions that lie before us in our own personal war of purpose and meaning.

The military metaphor—army versus army—is one approach to making some sense of the drama of these Days of Awe. But what’s its end point? First of all, we need to remember that it’s a metaphor—that mostly we’re not talking about real violence or real, physical enemies. Yes, we want to vanquish evil, yes we want to stop those who wish to harm us, yes we want to rid the land of vicious beasts—or, more in the spirit of repentance, to tame those beasts, to bring evildoers out of their darkness into the light of righteous living. But we also contend with existential obstacles that are more difficult– less concrete and more pervasive forces in our lives that prevent us from achieving the fulfillment we seek. We concretize them in the metaphor of a military enemy so that we can see them and face them. 

But even inside this metaphor there are limitations. What can we gain from the face-off? I would suggest that seeing ourselves at war can lead us towards goals of—at least—a feeling of victory that comes with vanquishing an enemy, but perhaps also a sense of security or maybe even a new era of peace—though usually real peace requires some radically different action in order to break out of a cycle of violence. Because when we focus on the vanquishing, the defeating of the enemy—as real as the threats might be from the destructive challenges all around us, physical and symbolic—what we’re still left with is the proverbial “zero-sum game.” We stay stuck in a place in which there’s a winner and a loser. And if we’re trying to be the winner, we need to recognize the grave possibility that we can wind up being the loser. The singer in “Some Nights” seems to suggest that his options are that he can “cash in” his bad luck, somehow get something out of his suffering and not give in to complete defeat; or he can call it a draw—no one wins; or, some nights, as he says, “I always win. I always win.” I can’t help but feel that he repeats this proclamation ironically, realizing that this win-lose-or-draw mentality is a sham. He’s stuck, feeling like he’s lost his soul, traded it in for false promises of fleeting satisfaction.

This view of win-lose-or-draw is not only scary or, to use the language of the season, awe-inducing. It’s also potentially toxic. We need to find alternatives to this black-and-white thinking. As the speaker in our song is suggesting, we need to get beyond “the hype,” “break the rules” that keep us stuck in a conflict-addicted mentality, a thinking that pervades our newspapers and other media—the literal “black-and-white” of twitter-style sound-bytes that trade in stark winner-loser modes of seeing the world.

So, the need for an alternative leads into the other metaphor I want to explore, one that also captures a sense of tension and conflict, but that also offers a greater promise than what we get from the military image. The image is one of intimate, personal relationships—between parents and children, between friends, and of course, between romantic lovers. On one level, these relationships aren’t metaphors at all—they’re very real parts of our lives that define so much of our existence, even more than the military model. But they also point to deeper activity that goes on inside each one of us and in our relationship to the Divine.

While any of these deep, personal relationships will necessarily involve disagreement, frustration, anger, and conflict, each one also offers profoundly rich feelings of connection that give our lives meaning. So, sometimes we find ourselves in conflict that feels like a military face-off of global proportions. But—even as we contend with all kinds of manifestations of real enemies that seek to undermine us, be they other people or just the vagaries of life—we also know that the prospect lies before us for not just protecting ourselves but for entering into warm, tender interactions. These interactions enable us to be more fully human and to discover the beauty within our fellow human beings and with the rest of Creation.

Our tradition celebrates both of these approaches to the Days of Awe. Over the course of my sermons this season, I want to look at various images and expressions of these metaphors—in our own sacred texts, in popular songs, and in the wisdom we discover in our own lives. My hope is that we can feel more fully engaged in the drama of the High Holidays in ways that can be relevant to us and that can connect us—not only back to our living heritage but also more deeply to ourselves, to those around us, and to God.

There’s an extremely popular teaching that connects the name for the Hebrew month that we’ve just completed, Elul, to a beautiful and very famous verse from Song of Songs. The verse is “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”—“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”—and we can make an acronym from those 4 words to spell the word Elul—Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed.

The message is that the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, to today, is one of courtship and bonding between God and God’s beloved—us. But this isn’t a new relationship—we have some history with God. So the rekindling of connection requires the work of reconciliation, of coming back, of return—which in Hebrew is t’shuvah, the same word we use for repentance and which is one of the main buzz words for the season. Rosh HaShanah begins Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating of course in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—which is a great English word that comes from the idea of “at one”-ment, meaning that’s when the reconciliation is complete, when we’ve fully arrived back into the relationship that we’ve—ideally—been actively seeking throughout the past month and that becomes more and more real to us over the coming days.

Yet, alongside this romantic metaphor—even with the recognition that it’s not all lovey-dovey but rather contains very difficult challenges—we also find much more violent imagery.

The Rabbis of long ago established that starting at the beginning of Elul—through this new month of Tishrei until the end of Sukkot—we would recite, each morning and evening, Psalm 27. [You’ll find the text to this psalm on p. 3 here.] Notice the first few verses, which immediately mention the fear the Psalmist might have in the midst of attack by wicked enemies who mount a war against him, seeking to destroy him, to devour his flesh. The really startling element here is that despite these grave threats, the speaker clings to a faith in God’s protection. Of course, the underlying emotional truth for him could be more a case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”—that he is so concerned about being alone and vulnerable and forsaken that all he feels he can do is express faith, even without any evidence to support it—an exercise in wishful thinking. How very human. We have no guarantees, but we can adopt an attitude of strength as a matter of choice.

And with this faith in Divine protection, we can develop images of contentment—images that are the polar opposite of the war we feel raging upon us and of the abandonment of loved ones that can add insult to injury: This contentment is captured in the image of dwelling in the presence of Divine shelter, of seeing goodness, of being moved to offer celebratory song as a sacred gift, of shofar blasts that express our unbounded joy.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that in verse 6, where the Psalmist begins imagining these reactions, that he’s describing a shift in his own consciousness. He is very deliberately and concretely moving his focus away from the military threats to a disposition of gratitude. He says, “my head rises over my enemies all around me,” meaning, in my interpretation, “I’ve gotten over them”—my consciousness has transcended a cycle of fear and has entered Divine space, God’s tent, where it now is overcome with joy. Even the shofar, which just as easily could be invoked as a clarion call on the battle field or an alarm of impending doom, is instead introduced as an instrument of expressing gratitude. Our minds and the tools all around us can all be transformed as we step out of harm’s way and into the shelter of the Divine.

But even that confidence is fleeting, because in the very next verse he returns to petitioning God and asking for assurance that he will be safe. His faith, like ours, is a precarious one, subject to the realities of living in a complex world where one wish or request does not magically dispel all fear. It’s an ongoing battle.

And it seems pretty clear as we move towards the end of the Psalm that just as the speaker might fear for his physical life or wellbeing, so too he struggles with a sense of being recognized, accepted, welcome. “Don’t forsake me, don’t abandon me like my parents did…” Like the singer in “Some nights,” he’s scared of being forgotten again, of being “half as liked” despite trying “twice as hard,” of being without friends, of not being understood, of his song being a “swan song”—a dying shofar blast, perhaps—of dying “alone, all dried up in the desert sun.”

I believe the Psalmist and the singer in our pop song both want to be in the presence of love, even though neither of them uses that word. They want not just protection but comfort and connection. These are basic human needs, and when we feel that they’re not being met, we can feel terribly vulnerable, like we’re being attacked by an army.

So, how do we achieve this sense of connection, this feeling of dwelling with the Divine? Obviously, there are no easy answers, and the struggle takes a life-time. But the great wisdom of our tradition, especially as it relates to this time of year, is to ask the big questions of ourselves. To engage in the process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. The Psalmist asks God to point him on the right path, but it’s up to each one of us to use our own faculties to see and hear God’s instruction, to figure out where we’re going, to make sense of the questions “Who am I? What do I stand for?” In the song “Some Nights,” beginning with its introduction [on p. 1 here]—the singer says, “I never look inward, try not to look upward, But some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me.” The suggestion, as I hear it, is that the hard work is one of inner reflection or of developing an actual relationship with God.

But if you think you do that by literally looking upward or even of thinking and praying for some sign to come, you’re likely to be disappointed. In the Psalm, the request is “Horaini darkecha” show me your path. The root for “Horaini,” show or instruct, is the same one we find in the word Torah, the sum total of all our sacred instruction. There is a path we need to walk in order to get to God’s tent and it takes discipline and commitment. It’s not going to come as a flash from the sky to solve all our problems overnight.

Nor do we have to “stare at the calendar, waiting for catastrophes.” Fear of the worst isn’t the only shofar blast available to us to wake us up out of slumber and remind us to live more meaningful lives. It’s not just that we’re being pursued by our enemies or that we realize we might drown or burn in the coming year—“Who by fire? Who by water?” we ask as a way to scare us into change.

There’s probably a place for that approach in the grand palette of options for jumpstarting renewal and transformation, and we’ll dramatically engage that approach tomorrow morning and on Yom Kippur with “Un’taneh Tokef.” But “Some Nights” and Psalm 27 seem to be suggesting that it might not be the best way, and the psalm definitely presents an alternative of not living in fear but rising above it.

The singer in “Some Nights” is also struggling to find something more than what he currently has. And in some respects he’s gotten more specific than the Psalmist in introducing the big questions about his own place in the world. Of course, he’s still trying to avoid asking these questions, relying on some martyr to take away his worries, but I believe he’s being ironic, that he sees that this isn’t a solution. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” After all, the words that follow are “But I still wake up.” It’s as if he’s saying, “I can’t sleep in blissful contentment—life is not so simple. I do hear the shofar call that stirs me from complacency and I do see ‘your ghost.'”

Is the ghost himself, an image of what he could have been and still could be, the soul he has lost? Is it the fleeting, intangible “You” with a capital Y, the Divine presence that continues to haunt us into asking the essential questions, that draws our attention to what we still don’t know: “What do I stand for?” The key awareness on this first night of the new year is that we are standing, and we’re actively engaged in the search to figure out why.

The Psalmist suggests our search is about walking the Divine path and that the walk will ultimately lead us to God’s presence, where we can live in contentment. But even then, there’s an uneasiness: He wishes to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life but then also wants to visit in the palace of the Eternal. He knows that as much as he’d like to be completely with God always, he’ll need to step out and step back in, making regular return visits that can keep the relationship fresh and renewed.

The singer in “Some Nights” has a similar feeling of a push-and-pull in his relationship. In the Intro, he says, “there are some nights I hold you close, pushing you to hold me.” Pushing someone in a relationship doesn’t usually get the other person to hold you, to pull you back in. We struggle for our own space—“it’s for the best we get our distance” is the sad way “Some Nights” ends. “It’s for the best you didn’t listen. It’s for the best we get our distance.” But we know he wants to be heard and wants to be held. Even as he pushes, he yearns for the loving pull—for presence, for connection. The Psalmist wants the “You” he’s addressing to listen—“Hear my voice!” he calls. He knows he won’t always be in the safety of God’s space, but he wants to be able to keep coming back, wants to have a clear path of return that he can walk.

Perhaps we’ve spent a lot of energy pushing away our loved ones and pushing away the Divine presence in our lives. Perhaps we’re afraid no one will listen, or that those who listen won’t understand us, and that we’ll be left all alone. These are important fears for us to recognize. The beauty of Rosh HaShanah is that, through the holiness of time, we have entered Divine space. We are on a sacred path that can lead us deeper and deeper into the pleasant chambers of God’s presence, into the assurance that we will be heard, we will be understood, we will be held close. Perhaps walking that path begins with the welcoming calls of the shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow, God’s answer that we are free to enter—or perhaps even God’s cry of wishing for our presence. It’s an invitation to arise, to figure out what we stand for—and maybe to just start walking even before we have it all figured out, but to not stop asking the question, as long as asking it doesn’t paralyze us.

Many nights we can feel confused and stuck. “Most nights I don’t know,” the singer laments. This night, our tradition says, on Rosh HaShanah, we can rise—we can stand with the confidence, or at the least the hope, that we are on a journey back towards a loving embrace, a holding, a connection, back to our own soul and into the shelter of an even greater Soul that not only keeps us safe, but that leads us to joyful, shofar-blasting jubilation.

The Rise of the Corporate Chaplain

The Rise of the Corporate Chaplain
Reactions from Rabbi Rick Brody

Once again, we in the Jewish community and the larger non-fundamentalist religious world might be able to learn about strategy from our evangelical brothers and sisters.

Is it time to consider placing rabbis and other liberal clergy in secular, corporate positions to tend to the spiritual needs of everyday workers and to overall company culture?

The title above refers (and links) to the headline in a recent Businessweek article by an old college classmate of mine, Mark Oppenheimer. I had a sense that something like this was going on — mostly evangelical Christian-run companies and some non-profits contracting with clergy or other religious leaders to serve a pastoral role in the workplace. But I wasn’t aware that it was this big a deal. Below are a handful of thoughts.

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First, here’s some information from the article that demonstrates why this is a conversation worth having:

[E]mployees are “dramatically” more likely to use workplace chaplains than standard mental-health benefits, according to preliminary results from an ongoing study by David Miller and Faith Ngunjiri of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. At least half of 1,000 employees surveyed have used the services of a workplace chaplain—far more than those who use standard assistance programs.

The article talks a lot about the idea of chaplains as an extension of Human Resources (HR). I worked for one year in a large, corporate-style, non-profit in the Jewish community. I was already a rabbi and while I was not hired to serve as one, I gently made it clear throughout the interview and hiring process that I carry my rabbinic persona in all that I do and that I saw my rabbinic skill-set as a way of providing added value to the job for which I was hired. Everyone within the institution agreed with me and affirmed this attitude. And sure enough, there was rarely a day that passed that someone didn’t come to me with some kind of “rabbinic question,” basically taking advantage–quite gratefully–of this “bonus” resource that was available to them. But, in my first few days, my supervisor made it clear to me, especially in regard to my role as a supervisor of other staff, that I was absolutely not supposed to interject my rabbinic role into questions of employees’ wellbeing. I was not to engage in any kind of crisis management for the personal lives of those I was working with, no matter the way they might choose to confide in me as a rabbi. Those functions were clearly those of the HR department. I accepted this instruction. Having never worked before in such a culture, it was the first time I learned about the power of an HR department and the pastoral role its staff can play. But as my own experience proved and as the data above corroborates, there is still a special role for clergy among many Americans–even when they’re not in their conventional house of worship (and I should add that non-Jewish staff would come to me as well with various questions).

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The article leaves me excited about the idea of mainstreaming this approach to chaplaincy beyond the evangelical world, particularly into companies that take a more progressive view towards social responsibility or at the very least are likely to employ a workforce that represents a more diverse range of religious orientations. I am very curious if there are any examples of such an angle on this innovative idea. Many within the rabbinate (and probably among all clergy in today’s ever-changing, decentralizing culture) are becoming more and more interested in finding unconventional ways that rabbis can have a positive influence in the wider culture. CLAL’s “Rabbis Without Borders” program is a prime example of this thinking, and there is a growing number of “entrepreneurial rabbis” who are contributing their Torah in all kinds of creative and effective ways.

I should note that there is certainly a strong element of self-interest here — job opportunities for the traditional roles that rabbis have filled are becoming more and more difficult to find as supply of talented, passionate, trained Jewish leaders is exceeding existing demand for such professionals, at least within the currently perceived roles. So, there is a real opportunity here for many under-employed rabbis to have a real impact on individuals and on society at large, while actually supporting their own families at the same time.

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A similar trend that has become somewhat popular is for specifically Jewish organizations to bring on a “Rabbi-in-Residence.” In many cases I think that role is expected to focus on providing text-based learning that connects the work and mission of the organization to traditional Jewish values and sometimes to attend to any matters of ritual concern that the organization might face such as kashrut or Shabbat observance at the organization’s retreat, etc. That was the de facto role I wound up playing on my side of the floor in the job I mentioned above–there were two other rabbis on the other side of the floor and one of them essentially was the kind of “rabbi-in-residence” I’ve described here.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard about a “rabbi-in-residence” serving more of that ad-hoc chaplain-style role for a Jewish organization’s employees, making rounds to cubicles the way one would on a hospital floor. Would this be a great thing? I’m inclined to see the positive aspects and imagine ways for this approach to help transform workplace culture for Jewish organizations. Of course, so many organizations within the Jewish world are very careful to not appear overtly “religious” and wish to maintain their emphasis on “secular” Jewish values like social justice. I see no reason why a pluralistic, “21st-century rabbi” couldn’t offer a presence and an opportunity that people would only see as supportive and as a chance for “value gained” rather than some kind of off-putting proselytizing. Rabbis on college campuses have been succeeding in this fashion for some time now. There are many more successful models out there than the Chabad rabbi encouraging you to wrap t’fillin, as worthy as such an effort might be. How about simply someone within your workplace environment who sits down with you during a coffee break to let you speak candidly about what’s on your mind and will listen with compassionate presence?

So, first, I’m curious about a call for Jewish organizations–many of which are in desperate need of revising their general corporate culture anyway–to think specifically about the ways a rabbi could add value to accomplishing their mission and keeping their employees not only satisfied but also invigorated about the work they’re doing. But of course the almighty dollar sets the tone and I can’t imagine too many (any?) Jewish organizations having the resources to make this kind of investment, barring some philanthropic support. Is there a foundation that would be interested in making grants to support such innovation in Jewish organizations, the way Hillels have been similarly supported?

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But let’s take it further, back towards the wider focus of the article. The article doesn’t address the response of employees who hold “minority” religious views or affiliations. Is there room within corporate America for open-minded clergy–rabbis included–to help transform a workplace culture in ways that aren’t focused on spreading a particular religious worldview? There are some really creative CEOs out there who care very much about fashioning a supportive work environment, one that celebrates as much of the “whole person” working for them as possible (an idea the article raises). If they’re going to provide incentives for physical fitness–I’ve heard of companies offering yoga and many are now hiring in-house caterers to provide nutritional meals for their employees–couldn’t there be a similar emphasis on “spiritual wellbeing,” with an in-house chaplain helping provide resources for employees? If they’re going to profess promoting “work-life” balance, couldn’t a chaplain help bring that wish to fruition? The brainstorming can go on and on. I’d be really curious to have a conversation with people from various industries about how this model can be adapted. And in the case of many companies, I would imagine the resources are are already available.

Would a Jewish or multifaith collaborative of more “liberal” religious groups want to form some kind of agency that could do what Marketplace Chaplains USA and other existing clearinghouses are doing for the evangelical world? Such a group could start networking with all kinds of for-profit companies and non-profit organizations to see about experimenting with some of these models.

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As for some of the particular concerns raised in the article:
I don’t see the ethical problems as nearly as pronounced as they are presented in the article. The fact is, at least within the rabbinate and certainly the congregational rabbinate, that the clergy is almost always an employee of the synagogue or other organization and has no radically different dispensation to act in a manner that is contrary to the “interests of the organization.” A rabbi who would be concerned about unfair wages or other conditions for workers at the shul would have to face the same challenges about speaking up that are presented hypothetically in the article. It is no easy situation and clergy have often sacrificed their comfort and their job security by speaking out against practices of which they deem their own congregants responsible or guilty. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise was quite famous for this kind of prophetic way of speaking truth to power–the garment-factory owners whose money paid his salary.

I also know of rabbis who have violated confidentiality of those who had come to them (including employees of the congregation) when they feared that “harm to the . . . company or its well-being [might] occur.” I am definitely not condoning such breaches but am simply indicating that they already exist, so this new model of chaplaincy doesn’t present entirely new ethical problems.

Finally, Reverend Lillian Daniel is quoted in the article, sharing her misgivings about this approach to chaplaincy:

“This kind of chaplaincy treats religion as filling just another human need or lifestyle choice,” Daniel says. “Your workplace gave you a health club, it gave you a credit union, now it gives you a pastor. But that’s not how religious lives are truly lived. They are lived in community with other believers.”

It is worth noting that, I believe, Reverend Daniel gained her greatest media attention last year–it was when I first learned of her–when she published a piece titled “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In this reflection, the pastor chastises Americans for their lazy thinking about spirituality and the ego-driven illusion that their feel-good spiritual pursuits don’t need or can’t benefit from the richness and texture of years of tradition and a history of shared struggle and discovery by a group of people and the stories, rituals, and other unique cultural qualities that define a religion. I agreed with her thoughts 100%, but I–and many other clergy who discussed the piece–felt that she failed miserably in the delivery of her message. By putting the “I’m spiritual but not religious” folks on the defensive–and in a public post, not something reserved for her professional colleagues (which I think would have been a more appropriate forum for her to vent the frustrations that so many of us feel when we confront such grand dismissals of the value of religion)–I think she only further alienates them, affirming their sense that organized religion is judgmental, self-righteous, and closed to alternative views. A different response is not to roll our eyes, no matter how much we might be doing so internally, but rather to see such a declaration as an invitation, a way to meet the person where she is, to affirm her serious misgivings about organized religion and how it has failed, and help figure out with such an individual if maybe she has something she can contribute to a more formal religious community that might be more on the same page as she is than she currently thinks and to see if perhaps the benefits could flow towards the individual as well.

I raise this critique because I think that Reverend Daniel is demonstrating a lack of flexibility in fully meeting the other, the one who professes to be turned off by religion. And while she offers compelling reasons for why we ought to take religion seriously, she seems tone-deaf about what American spiritual seekers are ready or able to hear from ecclesiastical authorities. I think she shows that same non-adaptability in her concerns about corporate chaplains. The fact is that Americans have indeed come to see religion as yet another offering on their plate of options for personal growth or meaning. Avraham Infeld, former president of International Hillel, used to talk about how students have multiple windows open on their computer desktop and of their facility in navigating among them (perhaps it’s time for a more “Web 2.0” metaphor).

Furthermore, Americans have moved so far away from Daniel’s ideal image (and again, one I share in my heart of hearts) of organic communities of like-minded religious practitioners. Communities have become much more porous and transient than the ones that were traditionally defined by a church or synagogue membership back in the days of “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.” Americans hold many allegiances and we have come to learn all too well about how for many, the primary one tends to be their work. And as those on the cutting edge of developing workplace culture have found, there are great possibilities for the fashioning of real community among coworkers. Why wouldn’t we want to open the door to that sense of community having a religious component to it for those who would find meaning and inspiration through such an approach? Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of where Americans are by infusing their rat-race environments with more soul?

Of course, my vision is very different than the one described in the article, and it is a more open and pluralistic vision that I would like to explore with others who might see the benefit of such an experiment. Also, of course, there always remains a difficult balance to strike between addressing individual’s private needs–even in the context of their public role as, say, an employee–and creating interpersonal community in such settings, especially if people hold radically different beliefs or spiritual orientations. I believe this is a struggle that chaplains deal with regularly in hospitals, in the military, in prisons, and in other places where their role has flourished. I would hope that corporate chaplains could learn from those in more traditional chaplaincy roles about how to strike that balance. Mostly, though, I have always understood the chaplain’s role as being fully present for the spiritual needs of each individual–on an individual basis. As this article testifies, there is great potential for serving a real need by placing those skilled in religious leadership in a place where people might need it most. And, as I’m sure traditional chaplains have found, the gains that can happen on an individual level can overflow into the larger culture and “success” of the larger community. So what if some of these communities define success by a monetary bottom line? If employees can get to that place of success with a strong feeling of self-worth, groundedness, and wholeness, and can do so in a manner that adheres to the highest of ethical principles within the workplace and in terms of the impact on the larger society–and if chaplains can help in achieving this success–then we as a society owe it to ourselves to figure out ways of advancing the corporate chaplaincy.