Peace and Long Life

Hearing the news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, I had a realization.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be Captain Kirk. But it was Spock who truly influenced me.
Who wouldn’t want to be Kirk? Dashing, commanding, a lover in every port. The literal center of the bridge who could, with equal effectiveness, fight or talk his way out of every situation. Playing Star Trek with friends, I took command, ordering red alert, full shields and deciding who wore the red shirt that week.
That was just play.
Vulcan_Homeworld_Wallpaper_by_imaximus
It was Spock who would end up resonating more deeply with me. Spock the alien, the outsider in a crew of humans, who was present but never really fit in. Spock, whose Vulcan Salute was a Jewish gesture suggested by a memory that Nimoy had as a child from synagogue, seeing the Cohanim bless the people. If Kirk idealized who I wanted to be, Spock spoke to who I was.
There is an element of Spock’s philosophy that forms a lasting basis of my personal and rabbinic approach: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC).
In the world of Star Trek, this belief system advocates for deliberate, intentional diversity of thought and individuals. The otherwise reclusive and restrained Vulcan people only join the interplanetary Federation because of their commitment to IDIC. On board the Enterprise, Spock reminds the crew to go beyond lip service to accepting others, and pushes them out of their often human-centric assumptions. For show creator Gene Roddenberry, this was central to the philosophical ideas behind Star Trek.
For me, it has become a central element of what I believe community must be: truly diverse, welcoming of everyone, and open to new ideas. This allows for more paths to wisdom, yet demands a deep and constant commitment to mutual respect and honest dialogue.
It has also been the element that stands out to me now as I re-watch every show on Netflix, alongside the diverse, virtual community of Mission Log. As a teen and today, I am Spock.
May Leonard Nimoy’s memory be for a blessing.

The Daily Show and Bringing Joy into Judaism

The recent news that Jon Stewart is leaving the Daily Show struck a cord with many; some are sad and some are relieved. His tenure on a fake news show, that for many was the primary source of “real news,” inspired an excellent summary of lessons on the NPR It’s All Politics blog entitled  “5 Things Jon Stewart Reminded Us About Politics” by Amita Kelly. dance-of-joy

One thing listed in the article: “Politics can be interesting — and fun,” speaks directly to the current Jewish community. It is no surprise that Stewart, (or should we call him by the name on his Bar Mitzvah invitation, Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) would have a strong comedic element. Jews and comedy go all the way back to the Talmud, and modern comics like Lenny Bruce helped turn the Jewish practice of brutally honest self examination into a mainstream value.

And the Daily show did just that, appealing to the politically disenfranchised in a way that was educational without taking itself too seriously. As Kelly puts it 

     “One of the show’s appeals to a younger audience was its knack for breaking down the latest Washington scandal by stripping it of Beltway-speak. Here’s how Samantha Bee, the show’s “White House Correspondent,” explained the Valerie Plame spy scandal in 2005:

     “Jon, in Washington, information is power, and is disseminated through a sophisticated network of operatives and contacts, in a system modeled after a sorority house,” she said.

     She then broke down the scandal and all the players as if it were happening in a sorority house, valley girl accent and all: “So then Cooper called Rove and he’s all like ‘Wilson’s wife’s all CIA!’ and Karl was like ‘I know, right! But you totally can’t tell anyone I told you!’ and Matt was all ‘I totally won’t!’ and Karl was all ‘You double-secret won’t tell?’ and Matt was all ‘I totally super-secret, double-super-secret won’t tell.’ ”

     That style turned off a lot of serious political viewers, but it got the job done: A 2008 Pew study found that viewers of The Daily Show were most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs.

The same ingredient is essential for today’s Jewish community, we must reclaim the joy in Judaism.

This is not a new idea, but one which needs more focus. We are no longer motivated by those who hate us, by fearing for the end of Israel, or by guilt. Today, participation in each part of the Jewish community must be less about meetings, and more about connecting; less about guilt and more about guidance, and we must focus on how our personal stories connect with tradition. And a primary avenue to this kind of honest, organic community is humor and joy. 

Stewart did it for politics, Judaism should be easy by comparison. 

Are We Not Brothers and Sisters?

ImageThis may be a stretch, but go with me for a moment.

There seems to be important connections between today’s Talmud portion and the Twin Cities Pride celebration.

At the most basic level, the message of GLBTQ pride is one of radical equality. It is based on the the idea that we are all human and all entitled to the same human rights: to love, to be loved, to be safe, and to be respected.

In the Talmud section [see below] for today (Taanit 18) we have a powerful prayer that was said by Yehuda ben Shammua and his colleagues, protesting restrictive laws placed on the Jewish community by Roman authorities.

They cried out:

Are we not brothers? Are we not children of one father? Are we not children of one mother? How are we different from any other peoples and languages that we are singled out for oppressive laws?

What a powerful argument to universal principals of equality.

Is this why Jewish communities have been such strong advocates for human rights? Did the rabbis of the Talmud provide a clear argument for marriage equality? Is it just a coincidence that the Twin Cities held their parade on the same day as that section of the Talmud is studied? (Ok, that last one is a bit of a stretch.)

What do you think, connection or coincidence?

(Also, I will share more thoughts from the Daf Yomi via twitter where you can follow me @RabbiAlanSL.


Below

The Daily Talmud portion I’m referring to is part of the Daf Yomi daily study program of the entire Talmud. This one page at time learning is coordinated world-wide, and takes seven an a half years to complete. We are currently examining fast days and the way they intersect with different holidays, and different parts of the ancient Jewish community. If you are interested in jumping in, I recommend the podcast Daily Daf Differently. For a great English/Hebrew text, see the Noé Edition of the Koren Talmud.

Welcome to Alef

All learning begins with Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in The Book of Letters writes about the letter Alef:

Image“It has no sound. Only the sound you make when you begin to make every sound. Open your mouth and begin to make a sound. STOP! That is Alef.”

Rabbi Kushner also tells the story of the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the special role of the Alef: “Rabbi Elazar bar Abina said in Rabbi Aha’s name: For 26 generations the Alef complained before G-d: I am the first of the letters yet You didn’t create Your world with me! Don’t worry, said G-d, the world and all its fullness was created for the Torah alone. Tomorrow when I come to give My Torah at Sinai the first word I say will begin with you.”

Rabbi Kushner continues:

“The name of the first Jew also began with Alef, Avraham Ahveenu, Abraham our Father. Alef is the letter of fire, Aysh. A fire which flames but does not destroy. That is how the Holy One gets your attention. He [sic] shows you primordial fire.

And the very first letter of the first word of the first commandment begins with the first letter which has no sound: Alef, Anochi, I. “I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery.

It is no accident that all these words begin with Alef. The most basic words there are begin with the most primal sound there is. The almost sound you make before you can make any sound.”

To this day, all learning begins with Alef, the sound which precedes every other, the sound of the moment before speech; caused by the intake of breath. It is a moment free of the past with infinite possibility for the future.

But there is more.

When we take the time to learn together, miracles, like that moment at Sinai, are still possible. If the participants are willing, if the text is open, and if the Divine Presence attends, we find the spark of true wisdom. In that space, as we take a breath to speak, we may realize that our long and arduous journey has returned us to the beginning. To a place where we can only start to understand the first breath of connection at Sinai. Yet we are satisfied. And still, we yearn for more.

New Class: Dilemmas of Faith

Join us as we ask the big questions.

Faith2I will be teaching a new class this summer, and everyone is invited.

Each session, I will facilitate a lively discussion of traditional Jewish texts focused on an aspect of faith, alongside video presentations from the world renowned faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel.

Together we will engage in a broad and deep analysis of some of the many challenges that faith in the modern world raises. Based on classical Jewish tradition and contemporary Jewish thought and life, we will addresses the big questions raised by the intersection of faith and reason, faith and history, faith and politics, and the faith experience.

Just The Facts:

  • 10 Weeks
  • July 13th to September 14th
  • 10 am to noon
  • At Coffee Bené, 53 Cleveland Ave (at Grand) in the Private Meeting Room.
  • $136 for the entire series or $14 per session

RSVP: classes@rabbishavitlonstein.com or visit the registration page

You can download a flier with details and a list of subjects, by date.

Living a Marathon Life

The Boston marathon ended this year, with an inspiring win and thousands of participants, as it has since 1897. But  this year was different. This was the first year after the bombing that took three lives, caused 264 injuries, impacted hundreds of runners near the finish and reverberated with thousands of us who run marathons, and shocked the entire nation.

Running shoes left at the makeshift memorial following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings are displayed in an exhibit titled "Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial" at the Boston Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Running shoes left at the makeshift memorial following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings are displayed in an exhibit titled “Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial” at the Boston Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Each year Boston has it’s challenges. There is a demanding qualifying time, and a course with a long downhill at mile 20 & 1/2 known as Heartbreak Hill. It takes a certain strength to run any marathon. All the more so with Boston this year.

That strength is characterized by the ability to endure over time and distance. It is a persistent strength, perhaps one that defies common sense, and one that travels despite the difficultly of the path or the number of miles left.

The same is true for a religiously committed life, one that seeks a deeper connection with the world around us, and holds us to a higher standard in our relationships with others. A religiously engaged life demands a strength that is firmly planted enough to survive diversity and flexible enough to adapt to changes in the terrain. In Jewish terms, it takes koach.

Jews use the word koach most frequently when congratulating someone on a job well done. We say Yasher Koach, as a way of affirming the good actions they just performed (often after taking an alyia to the Torah) and wishing them strength in all their endeavors. The literal translation is “May your strength be firm.” It is an image of strength that is deeply rooted, and which grows straight in a single direction. It is like the laser focus on a goal that admits no diversions or hesitation.

The key to this kind of strength is that it is only found in shared spaces at common times when engaged in activities or rituals that require real effort. You don’t say Yasher Koach to yourself, and no one says it to you for tying your shoes or reading a paragraph. But if those shoes are for a marathon, or the paragraph is from Torah; and when the actions are done in community, then the effort we expend is deserving of a Yasher Koach.

May we all find the ability to run that extra mile together.

The Freedom to Serve

As Jews around the world approach Passover, we prepare to celebrate our freedom. Each year, we recall the story of ancient Israelites, who, through a combination of Divine guidance and human audacity, achieved freedom from slavery. Yearly we remind ourselves that their story is our story. We owe our freedom from narrowness and restrictions, to their actions. We are no longer slaves.

Image

Haggadah Illustration by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz.

Yet we still serve.

The freedom we achieve for Passover is not so much the freedom from but the freedom to. While we no longer serve Pharaoh, but we continue to serve. Tradition (specifically Rashi on Exodus 20:2)  makes is clear that the purpose of our freedom from Egypt is so we can serve God.

While the same language of enslavement is used, the difference is profound. In Egypt we served a person, interested in building edifices dedicated to ego with the goal of pitting people against one another. After Egypt we serve God, building cathedrals in time rather than space, and work to bring unity and peace to communities.

As we celebrate our freedom, let us remember that we still serve, but it is a servitude freely chosen and for a higher, uniting, purpose.