March

2014

Kashrut is in the news again. First is the news item from the State of Florida and its prison system. The state wants to cut its kosher food program in the state prisons because too many inmates are requesting the kosher meals. The meals cost up to three times as much as the regular meals in the prisons and apparently taste much better.

The second item is a false rumor circulating around the Department of Defense. The DoD issues kosher MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) for any observant Jews (or Muslims) in the Armed Forces. These MREs do not taste better than the regular MREs according to those in the know. The DoD is not cancelling kosher MREs.

This month we are making our way through the Book of Leviticus where one finds the original sources for kashut. In fact, one of our Bar Mitzvah students will preach on the subject in the coming weeks. The Levitical theme of kashrut was that food could transform the human body into a temple vessel, a tool for worshipping God.

In our day, ideas about food have gone through a series of revolutions. Food can be entertainment. Food is the science of nutrition. Food is fundamental to health throughout one’s life. Food is curative, in mind, body, and spirit. Food causes disease. Food can be transformed into “frankenfood”. We have new terms like “locavore” and “foodie” while recipes for Pesach or Hanukkah have been eclipsed by a billion wings served on Superbowl Sunday and chocolate everything on Valentines.

The core teaching of Kashrut is that food can be a meaningful human experience. In our day we have many imitators of this lesson. These imitators leave us fat and bloated, insatiate and unhappy with the choices we have made. If you feel any or all of these symptoms, then it is time to follow the age-old customs of our distant ancestors: open the pantry and make some significant decisions about the foodstuffs you are going to choose to eat.

 

2012

One of the great masters of the early rabbis was visiting one of his disciples at the disciple’s home. The master was appalled that his student in which he had poured such time and effort, in which he had taught some of the greatest and profound learning of the day, was on his hands and knees playing horsey on the floor.

The conclusion that the game of “horsey” goes back at least 2000 years is intriguing by itself. However, the prime controversy is the seeming contradiction between a man of letters and a father of young children. “There is no contradiction,” the Talmud states with unwavering confidence. Learned or unlearned, the best parent is one to leaves his chair and comes down to the level of the children in order to raise them well. The master is rebuked by one of his fellows.

The question one of our religious school parents asked after hearing the story was “How low do I have to go?” An image of a limbo contest popped into my brain and I responded with a calypso accent, “How low can you go?”

We laughed but I was serious. Raising kids is a serious business even if it involves a lot of laughter, horseplay, and adventure. Our tradition is conscious of this peculiar juxtaposition of taking our responsibilities seriously while not taking ourselves near so seriously. After all, generations of fathers around the world have gotten on their knees to play horsey, camel, llama or donkey with their kids.

Purim is one of those holidays where the confluence of children and parents, of teaching and playing, comes into focus. The Purim Shpiel is an exercise in teaching a biblical text while playing the clown in front of a congregation. We have a new play this year but we also have new actors this year: parents from the religious school. I surely hope none of them are serious actors because these are career ending performances. Everything in the play is kid-friendly, of course, but carefully cultivated adult dignity is a hindrance for the depth of the pathos of this script, which is great contribution to the American stage tradition. Sorta, maybe, kinda.

O well, we will have fun – even if it is at some parents’ expense.

2011

The events of Egypt since January25 have taken everyone by surprise. With the fall of the Tunisian dictator, the Egyptian population found a final spark that led to their own uprising. Pundits have talked themselves blue in the face and politicians have bent and contorted their bodies in inventive ways as everyone tries to get a read on the immediate future. Who can read the future, even just a few days ahead?

Consider a case from our ancient history. King Saul was desperate man. The Philistines had sent a larger than usual force against him not far from their territory. The other tribes of Israel had withdrawn their support and troops, forcing Saul to rely on his Benjaminite troops, who were crack soldiers but outnumbered. The battle was the next day. “Thus Saul inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his courtiers, ‘Find me a woman who consults ghosts, so that I can go to her and inquire through her.'” Saul wanted to know if he would survive the upcoming battle. He did not get an answer, which actually was the answer. He tried every means available to see the future, even consulting ghosts all to no avail.

He died in battle the next day.

Human nature does not change. Great events, perhaps calamitous and perhaps glorious loom on the near horizon and no one can say what tomorrow will bring. No one can predict the future and anyone who says that they can is lying. How can I make such a statement?

In the case of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak and the country of Egypt, where does one begin to unravel decades of threads, knots, and weaves that make up this tapestry? Egypt has an unbroken peace treaty with Israel and sells natural gas through a pipeline to the Jewish State. Yet Mubarak is trusted by the Palestinian Authority and the Saudi king; he has relationships with leaders throughout the Middle East, from nascent democracies to cynical dictatorships. Fundamentalists and secularists hate him and his secret police. He has kept the Suez Canal open and functioning at capacity while restricting internet, clamping down on Twitter and Facebook access. Egypt thrives on tourism yet most of the country lives in poverty. The largest portion of Egyptian society is under 35 and there are few jobs to be had, none of any worth unless one has connections. College educated means unemployed and in debt in Egypt.

Mubarak has capitulated and he is forfeiting his billions of dollars in stashed assets. If he had been able to retire, he would have gotten to keep much of it. The same can be said about his henchmen and his son who was supposed to be heir to the throne. The secret police and the families of the victims know the police are guilty of torture and murder on a mass scale. There will be a demand for justice.

Anyone who claims to have the answers to this thorny circumstance of an emerging democracy after a hated dictator in a modernizing country is a bald liar. Like Saul of old, they are rolling the urim, that is to say “the dice,” and attempting to present random rolls as coherent predictions. Hopes and dreams are often dashed on the shores of unyielding reality and ideals are often upheld even on unstable shores.

We are left with prayers and platitudes in place of certainties. At least as religious people, we have an obligation to offer up prayers that innocent remain unharmed and the righteous out of the hands of the secret police. We pray for a peaceful emergence of kindly state that brings hope and freedom to the downtrodden of Egypt and security to Israel, her neighbor.

2010

Thirty years ago, the teenage storyline was that kids labeled geeks were on notice that they were going to get beat up. Anyone out of the ordinary, anyone demonstrating an outrageous imagination was subject to ridicule, exclusion and isolation.

Times change and the most successful movie of the moment is a 1960’s science fiction storyline with 2000’s computer animation technology titled “Avatar”. The visionaries of the 60’s have been combined with the dreamers of this past decade to create a piece of cinema that captured a global imagination. What all of these dreamers and visionaries of different generations had in common is that they were all geeks.

Being a geek isn’t what it used to be. Today, being labeled a geek is a necessary precursor for later success and adventure. Bill Gates lectured a group of graduating high school seniors: “Be nice to geeks. You will work for one someday.”

Imagine that.

Bill Gates isn’t Jewish, but the sentiment he expressed is a thoroughly Jewish one. Exploring the world using one’s imagination and academic gifts as a child and as a teenager is the road of success in our new global society. Teenagers are writing apps for the Iphone and that is amazing. Teenagers are spending summers rebuilding New Orleans or working to overcome poverty in Costa Rica with other Reform Jewish teenagers and that, too, is amazing.

Again and again, our ancestors’ choice to train their children to be “The People of the Book” is confirmed. Their specific methodology was to learn our tradition and then apply those lessons in the greater world. They demanded that their children use their imagination. In every generation where Jews were given the opportunity, we have proven the efficacy of Jewish study time and again. Our religious tradition promotes study, imagination, and taking chances.

 

2009

From earliest times individuals and their societies have collided in the contradictory needs of tradition and innovation. Tradition requires the adherence to one code, one code of law, one code of custom, one code of etiquette, and one unequivocal moral code – all of which is a big body of rules of how one should behave. Then we have the free spirits, the revolutionaries, the rogues, and antidisestablishmentarians (yes, it’s a real word) who consciously seek to break and twist as many rules as their imaginations allow.

One generation called this attacking of the establishment as “taking on the man.” A city sponsored museum in Brooklyn displayed a portrait of the Virgin Mary constructed out of elephant dung that prompted then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to cut all funding to that Brooklyn museum. The cries of religious outrage ran across the airwaves and the banners of newspapers. The incident was a direct provocation of the powers-that-be. The sponsors were betting that the mayor and his supporters were ignorant of the sacredness of elephant dung in religious artwork in parts of Africa. (The artist was African.) Sure enough, Giuliani rose to the heights of officious buffoonery and then couldn’t retract his words.

Purim is the Jewish version of this dynamic between the subversive and pious. Almost anything is allowed during the celebration of the holiday. Hard liquor, ribald lyrics, men and women mixing: all of these religious taboos were brought under the synagogue roof for one night. A ghost of a headache still flares when I recall the celebration at the neighborhood synagogue on the backside of the mountain in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I lived for a year, a rather pious little place. We carried on until the early hours of the morning and every part of my body ached the next day.

In our shul, we’ve had grown men in drag, subversive lyrics, and unrepentant ripoffs of respectable plays, movies, and television shows. We’ve presented every kind of joke used on stage in bad taste, sometimes in good taste, and always with a wink and a smile. There were bad songs sung by great voices and great songs given to some truly awful voices.

Some years we have made some of the most heartbroken among us laugh and some of the most self-conscious clap their hands with delight. We have given great memories to a dearth of children and few memorable chuckles to their parents and grandparents. Mature elders have howled and “adults-who-should-know-better” have stood on stage in ridiculous clothes and spoken lines that leave their loved ones wondering about their maturity.

Many of us have teenagers who can claim that their parents’ participation in Purim traumatized them for years. Can there be a higher compliment on a night of seditious repartee than to “out-teenage” a teenager?

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