Talmud this Shabbat: How to Have a Deeply Fabulous At Home Rosh Hashanah

Talmud is back! Tomorrow morning we begin again, and our clergy team is blessed to tackle the following question: how do we make this year’s Rosh Hashanah fabulous–filled with meaning, connection, song and celebration, questions that make you think.

Yes, it will be unlike any other. Yes, we are usually in shul, and this year we are not. Yes, it is a big question mark how to do without that energy of everyone coming back to shul to begin the year again.

But hopefulness and optimism are how we roll. We have the chance to make this year’s Rosh Hashanah extraordinarily beautiful, and tomorrow morning, we are going to talk about how to do just that.

We are attaching the brand-new Rosh Hashanah Seder 5781/2020, created by The Rabbinical Assembly here. This was written precisely for the moment we are in right now. It is geared to help us take a holiday that we usually celebrate in shul and, instead, find great meaning and joy in celebrating it at home.

Tomorrow morning each of the five members of our clergy team will take one page of this Rosh Hashanah Seder and unpack it, role modeling how the passages we usually associate with shul (e.g., unetaneh tokef) can lead to a great conversation at home with your loved ones.

Rosh Hashanah in month 7 of the pandemic is just what we need: a booster shot of prayer, song, family, community, love and hope.

See you tomorrow morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream

Shabbat shalom and shana tova,

Talmud This Shabbat: What is the Proper Role of Clergy in a Contentious Time?

Black Lives Matter. Mask-wearing as politics instead of public health. Racist reduction of Coronavirus to “Kung Flu.” Whites in Boston have a median net worth of $247,000. Blacks in Boston have a median net worth of $8.

What is the proper role of rabbis and cantors in such a time as this? If we do our work within the sacred bubble of 385 Ward Street, the cantors make beautiful music and sing uplifting songs, the rabbis teach and preach and counsel, is that enough? Should our job, properly considered, also require us to raise our moral voices, take action, and urge others to take action on the urgent issues of the day?

Many clergy live with a persistent gnawing dilemma. If we speak out, we offend some members of our congregation whom we love, and we want to be a congregation for all. We want to make our congregation a safe space for everybody, a place where all can come. That suggests we talk about religion, about values, not about politics.

But what religious value is more important than the principle that all human beings are made in God’s image? How can a religious community not speak out against racism? How can a religious community not speak in favor of and work towards economic justice?

If we speak out, we offend some people.

If we do not speak out, we are not faithful to Judaism’s deepest values: not to be indifferent, not to stand idly by, not to avert our gaze.

For our last class, Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I will each teach one text or song that speaks to the role of a synagogue, and its clergy, in this tempestuous time.

Thank you for learning with us throughout the pandemic. Your continued presence with us was truly a beautiful silver lining.

The texts are here.

The link is here: Gann Chapel Livestream.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Beheading Columbus–What is a Jewish Approach to Statues in the Public Square that Offend Contemporary Sensibilities?

Nine days ago, in Boston, in the North end, a statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded. Similar violence, destruction and removal has been done to numerous statues in the public squares of our nation. Confederate leaders. Confederate soldiers. Confederate generals. Slaveholders. Taken down. Beheaded. Decapitated. Destroyed. Removed. It is a nation-wide trend. Photos and texts are attached.

The case for statue elimination is plausible, even persuasive. As William Faulkner trenchantly observed, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Statues of racist Confederates who rebelled against our country and fought for the right to own slaves give succor and solace to racists and white supremacists today. They are deeply offensive to the notion that all human beings are made in God’s image and have equal dignity. They are particularly offensive to communities of color. As my son observed in support of Yale changing the name of one of its residential colleges from Calhoun (the preeminent advocate for slavery) to Grace Hopper College (a computer scientist), how would we feel if our children were residents of Goebbels College, or Hitler College? The intensity behind statue elimination I totally get, and perhaps it’s not wrong.

But what are the costs? What are the costs in terms of mob justice? Fury from the left, like fury from the right, is still fury. What about reasoned argument and due process?

Where does it end? Why not take down the Washington Monument? He too owned slaves. Why not take down the Jefferson Memorial? He too owned slaves.

Most importantly, what do we lose when we erase the most painful and hurtful parts of our history? Is there some other move so that we can actually learn and grow from the most painful and hurtful parts of our history? How can we learn from history that is literally effaced and erased?

Tomorrow morning we are going to see two possible approaches to statue elimination, both in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses’ final speech has so much to teach us now in this fraught season.

Michelle, Elias, Aliza, Dan and I all look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: When is Incremental Too Little, Too Late? When is Radical Change the Right Move?

Abolish. Dismantle. Defund. What are we to make of these verbs, and of the fervor with which they are offered? No justice, no peace, abolish the police! Are these verbs too aggressive, or is there a legitimate basis to them?

In her op ed piece in the Times this week, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow,, and a preeminent authority on the purpose and effect of mass incarceration of African Americans, argues that tweaking the police has been tried, and it has failed spectacularly. She quotes another thinker who avers:

Look at the Minneapolis Police Department, which is held up as a model of progressive police reform. The department offers procedural justice as well as trainings for implicit bias, mindfulness and de-escalation. It embraces community policing and officer diversity, bans “warrior style” policing, uses body cameras, implemented an early intervention system to identify problematic officers, receives training around mental health crisis intervention, and practices “reconciliation” efforts in communities of color.

George Floyd was still murdered.

She argues that our entire criminal justice system must be not tweaked, but re-imagined.

The core argument of so many protesters is: Incrementalism is too little, too late. Been there. Done that. Does not work. We need radical change.

In our Talmud class this Shabbat, we will examine Jewish sources on this question of incremental vs. radical change. Not surprisingly, our tradition has canonized both voices. Our prophets fulminate: radical change, now. Our rabbis caution: evolution, not revolution.

Both voices are authentically Jewish. The sources, including Michelle Alexander’s piece, the Torah, the Talmud, the prophet Isaiah, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, are attached here.

Which voice is wiser for America now?

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Gentle Voice / Anguished Voice: Which Voice Does America Need Now?

How does the clear call of the biblical prophet intersect with the mess of the real world?

How does Micah’s uplifting charge—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God—intersect with grisly the murder of George Floyd by four policemen?

On Shabbat morning we will examine two very different voices of modern prophets.

On April 4, 1968, the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy (running for President) was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis. The police, the Secret Service, his family, his campaign all strongly urged that he cancel. Cities were on fire with protests. We cannot protect you. Don’t do it. Over their objections, he did it. He delivered a five minute speech. It worked. Indianapolis was the only city that night that did not have riots. Senator Kennedy invited people to go home and pray, and they did.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ classic, Between the World and Me, came out in 2015. Coates’ prose is poetry. His writing is lyrical, evocative—and devastating. He describes the constant fear that attends growing up black in America. The fear of the streets. The fear of teens brandishing guns. But mostly the fear of police. Police who can and do stop and frisk and shoot and kill black Americas who are utterly innocent. His good friend, Prince Jones, is killed at the age of 25 while trying to visit his fiancé. Ta-Nehisi writes the book as a cautionary letter to his teen-age son, knowing that this tragic fate could be the author, could be the author’s son, could be any and all black Americans. Dead. Gone. For no reason. And no accountability.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book is anguished. He does not try to comfort his son. He does not try to comfort his reader. He offers no solution. Racism just is. Black vulnerability just is.

Which voice–Kennedy’s gentleness, or Coates’ anguish–does America need to hear now? The point of prophecy, as Micah Goodman has taught us, is not to predict the future, but to change the future. Can either change our nation’s future?

Access the attachment here.

See you tomorrow at 9:30. Gann Chapel Live Stream.

Talmud This Shabbat: The Prophet of Restoration — Zechariah

To date the prophets we have studied have prophesied destruction. The Babylonians are coming. The Assyrians are coming. The locusts are coming. Destruction and exile are coming! All of those prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk) lived and preached before 721 BCE (Assyria destroys Israel) or 586 BCE (Babylon destroys Judea).

By contrast, our prophet this coming Shabbat, Zechariah, is the first prophet who prophesies restoration.

Zechariah has a tall order. In 538 BCE, Persia conquered Babylon, and Cyrus, the King of Persia, allowed the Jews to go home to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. Zechariah walks onto the pages of history eighteen years later. It is 520 BCE, and after eighteen years, still no Temple. Instead, demoralization, in-fighting, turf, ego, longing for what once was, fear about what will be. No Temple. Rubble.

Zechariah starts preaching and prophesying. Four years later, the Temple is built.

What was Zechariah’s message? How did he get a depressed and demoralized people dialed in to their future again?

We need to hear what he has to say.

Access the texts here.

See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Chag Sameakh,

Talmud this Shabbat: Having Faith When Faith is Hard to Have–The Prophecy of Habakkuk

In some ways, Habakkuk channels the angst of a pandemic age. A deeply disrupted present. A deeply uncertain future. No clear path to a better place. And it feels like he has been stuck in that muck forever. Here is how his prophecy begins:

How long, O lord, shall I cry out
And You not listen,
Shall I shout to You, “Violence!”
And You not save? (1:2)

Habakkuk lives in the era of an ascendant Babylon. He decries how Babylon conquers and slaughters nation after nation, and Judea is next. Meanwhile God does absolutely nothing:

Why do You countenance treachery,
And stand by idle
While the one in the wrong devours
The one in the right? (1:13)

The pathos of Habakkuk is that he wants to have faith in God, but the world cries out just the opposite: Godlessness. Might makes right. The vicious are the victors. The righteous are the dead.

Our sages picked Habakkuk as the Haftarah for the second day of Shavuot. Somehow, the Haftarah ends with the prophet’s affirmation of faith. The world did not change. He lives on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple, the burning of Jerusalem, the murder of its residents, and the exile of those who survived. He feels the dreaded end in the air. But something within the prophet himself changed. He has faith.

Yet I wait calmly for the day of distress,
For a people to come to attack us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
And no yield is on the vine,
Though the olive crop has failed
And the fields produce no grain,
Though sheep have vanished from the fold
And no cattle are in the pen,
Yet will I rejoice in the Lord,
Exult in the God who delivers me.
My Lord God is my strength:
He makes my feet like the deer’s
And lets me stride upon the heights. (3:16-19)

Look at the two yets italicized above. Yet I wait calmly for the day of distress, for a people to come to attack us. (verse 16) And Yet will I rejoice in the Lord, Exult in the God who delivers me (verse 18). How do these two verses work together? How does he wait, pit in stomach, for an enemy to destroy his homeland and, at the same time, he rejoices in he Lord?

How do we have faith when faith is hard to have?

The texts from Habakkuk are here.

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.


Talmud this Shabbat: Does God Really Care Whether We Observe Jewish Law?–The Voice of the Prophet Micah

Thirty years ago, a young Rabbi Brad Artson got to Congregation Eilat, a Conservative shul in Mission Viejo, California and discovered a cultural pattern that was both lovely and so troubling to him that he could not live with it as it was. Congregants would brew fresh pots of coffee and enjoy their coffee and bagels as part of Kiddush—the social encounters that we all today miss so much. The lovely part was friends coming together to pray and to schmooze. The part he could not live with was brewing fresh pots of coffee.

Jewish law (halakhah) prohibits cooking on Shabbat because we are not to perform melakhah, labor, on Shabbat. The Talmud lays out 39 forbidden labors, one of which is cooking. The rationale is that the Sabbath is a day to be, not to do; to leave the world as it is, not to change it. The other six days, we change it; on Shabbat we rest with it as it is. When we cook, we change the nature of the food from uncooked to cooked. Hence no cooking. According to Jewish law, while one cannot brew a fresh cup of coffee on the Sabbath day, one is allowed to put boiling water (from a hot water urn that is turned on before Shabbat) into freeze dried coffee. Freeze dried coffee is already cooked. There is a principle ein bishul achar bishul, you cannot cook something on Shabbat if it were already cooked before Shabbat.

In an article he wrote thirty years ago, Rabbi Artson argued that rabbis have to pick their spots when they are going to really fight for something they believe in, and when they will look the other way. This was something he really believed in. He could not be a rabbi at a Conservative shul where there was cooking done on Shabbat. He had to do training and education to get his congregants away from brewing pots of coffee to using freeze dried coffee. No fresh brewed coffee, no cooking on Shabbat, was a deal breaker for him.

Roll the film forward thirty years. This past December, Michelle and I had dinner with Rabbi Artson. I asked him did he still feel the same way about a Conservative shul not brewing coffee on Shabbat? Absolutely, he said. He still cares deeply about Jewish law, and not brewing coffee on Shabbat is an expression of that commitment.

Rabbi Artson still cares. But I have two questions for you. Do you care about Jewish law? And did the Biblical prophet Micah care about Jewish law?

Tomorrow we are going to encounter Micah’s most famous passage:

God has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God. (6:8)
What does Micah think about religious rituals like using freeze dried coffee over fresh brewed coffee as an expression of fidelity to God?

What impact, if any, has the Covid-19 crisis, and the pandemic, and the suffering, and the loss of life and livelihoods, had on your own sense of the importance of religious ritual? Did you experience Passover cleaning differently this year? With so much suffering all around, do religious rituals still matter? With screens and technology so intertwined with our religious services, will not devices continue be a part of our services forever?

How should we be thinking about halakhah, and religious ritual, today? I am attaching the Micah texts as well as an important article authored by Rabbi Harold Kushner in 2007 entitled Conservative Judaism in the Age of Democracy, in which he argues that the Conservative movement is not (and never was) a halakhic movement, and that we should reconceive mitzvot as things we do not because we believe God commands us to do them, but because we believe that doing them adds meaning, purpose and holiness to our lives. If that is your lens, what’s in your cup of coffee this Shabbat morning?

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: When We Hate, It Only Makes Us Smaller–the Case of Obadiah

If there were a contest for least inspiring prophet, the hands-down winner would be Obadiah. His entire prophecy consists of 21 verses and is the Sephardic Haftarah for parshat Vayishlach.

The other prophets we have studied demand that we look inward and change our game. Hosea decries our faithlessness and pleads with us to recommit and betroth ourselves to God. Joel tells us the locusts came as condign punishment for our failings, and that if we assemble, fast, pray, and improve, God will restore what the locusts consumed. Amos castigates us for not seeing and caring about the poor, and for hypocrisy. We care about ritual, not about justice. He demands justice and righteousness. If we heed these prophets, we have to do better.

Not so Obadiah. He asks nothing of us. His entire prophecy is about hating on Edom, which rabbinic tradition took as an exemplar of either Rome or, later, Christendom. Edom gloated when Jerusalem was sacked. What happened to Jerusalem will now happen to Edom. Edom that once gloated will be crushed. That’s it.

Reading Obadiah, one wonders why is his prophecy even in the Bible? What were the people who canonized him possibly thinking? What is aspirational or inspirational or educational in an angry revenge fantasy?

And yet, Obadiah has the last laugh. Not only is his angry fantasy in the Bible, and further canonized as a Haftarah for Sephardim, the last line of his prophecy, Obadiah 1:21, is a fixture in our daily morning service.

What do we learn from this flawed and odd prophecy?

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.


Talmud this Shabbat: What the Prophet Amos Teaches Us That We All Need to Hear Right Now

Amos, the 3rd of our twelve prophets, has much to teach us as we enter the 7th week of our lockdown.

Amos was overwhelmingly negative. Doom and gloom. Mr. Pessimism. He literally tells the King of Israel you are going to die by the sword, the kingdom is going to be destroyed, your sons and daughters will all fall by the sword, the people will be exiled. More than 90% of his prophecy is unrelievedly dour and sour. Our Amos texts are here.

What’s so interesting is that nobody reads Amos’ grim pronouncements but Bible scholars. Amos is famous for two things. He is quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the I Have a Dream speech. He has a rare optimistic chapter that is chosen as a Haftarah and from which language is taken for the grace after meals.

His overwhelming pessimism does not stick.

His rare sparks of optimism are what we remember.

Seven weeks of lockdown wear anyone down. But Amos teaches us that pessimism accomplishes absolutely nothing.

Find your glimmer. We need hope.

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.