What do you pray for? 

What do you pray for?

Maybe you pray for good health for yourself and those you care about. Perhaps you pray for success or material blessings. Perhaps you pray for peace, the end of strife and struggle in our world. Or maybe you don’t pray for anything at all.

If asked what I pray for, I would reject the premise of the question. To my mind, the question shouldn’t be “What do you pray for?” because I don’t see Jewish prayer as a pathway to fulfilling needs and wishes. Of course, there are people, Jewish and not Jewish, who do hope for and even expect specific results from their prayers. I’m just not one of them.

Instead, I think the most relevant question is “Who do you pray with?”

crowdJewish prayer is about connecting. Through prayer, we connect with powerful and compelling ideas, most often expressed in poetry and metaphor, about the meaning of our lives and our purpose in this world. Through prayer, we connect with our people’s past and link ourselves, by means of a shared language and common values, to generations of Jews who have sought to continue the holy task of healing the world.

Jewish prayer invites us to connect with one another as human beings. I can pray by myself but, at least for me, praying alone is never very uplifting. But the experience of praying with a congregation has the potential to be exhilarating. Singing together and praying in each other’s presence create and sustain community, which is the great engine that propels us forward and makes it possible to keep the Jewish way of life vital and compelling.

At Oheb Shalom, we continue to seek deeply meaningful ways of praying together as a community. Introducing Shabbat Shelanu, meaning “Our Shabbat.” Don’t think of this as your typical Shabbat morning service. This is a prayer experience to inspire you with instrumental and vocal music, with Torah study and discussion. English meditations and readings alongside traditional Hebrew passages (and transliterations) will ensure the morning is accessible for all.

matt-turk-2Co-leading with me will be Matt Turk, a talented musician who plays guitar and mandolin. Matt is steeped in Jewish music and was trained by Pete Seeger. He brings to Oheb a soulful combination of teacher, worship leader, and mensch.

Will Shabbat Shelanu be different from the traditional Shabbat morning service that we share each week at Oheb Shalom? Yes, it will. It’s being offered out of a desire to innovate and experiment, to reach deeper within our connection to one another on Shabbat morning.

Shabbat Shelanu will happen four times this year, with the first on October 27th from 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM. (If you miss it, the other dates are December 1, January 12 and February 9.)

Remember, it’s not what you pray for, it’s who you pray with. Shabbat Shelanu invites us to connect to each other, to our community and to our tradition through music and energized singing. I hope you will be with us for this first initiative on October 27.

Hadata: How Does One Become More Religious?

Please join me this Friday night at 8:00 PM for a presentation by Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation.  Gideon’s topic will be “Religious Tolerance in Israel: Reality or Illusion?”

In his book Directed by God: Jewishness in Contemporary Israeli Film and Televison, Yaron Peleg argues that despite efforts to limit Jewish religiosity in the State of Israel and keep the nation secular, Israelis are nonetheless becoming more religious, fueled in part by the growth of the ultra-Orthodox community and the settler movement.   Peleg writes that the transformation toward a more religious stance is especially reflected in Israeli film and television, which he says is having an impact on the relationship between Zionism and Judaism.  He argues that films such as Kadosh, Waltz with Bashir and Eyes Wides Open, and television series such as Shababnikim and Merchak Negiah explore how secular Israeli culture deals with Jewish religious heritage.  Peleg identifies a Hebrew word- Hadata- that means “the process of making someone more religious” or “religiousification,” in this case of Israeli society.  His theory is that secular Israelis are inclined to embrace a hybrid identity, one split between secular and religious, and that many if not most Israelis are more religious than one might think.

Peleg’s writing is a compelling justification for the support of the Masorti Movement in Israel.  Rather than demand or coerce religious behavior and compliance from people, Masorti Judaism, like Conservative Judaism here in North America, is committed to an inclusive approach to Jewish life.  Indeed, Masorti’s core values are being welcoming and inclusive, honoring the traditional practice of Judaism, and working for religious freedom in Israel.  Masorti Judaism welcomes all types of people into their fold, including those who know they want to practice Judaism in a way that is inclusive and egalitarian as well as those who are searching for where they belong.  Masorti reaches out to those who are often disenfranchised and put off by the often coercive and demanding ways of Orthodoxy.

One might think that Israel is a country where religious freedom is ingrained and practiced, but that is not always the case.  The Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold on religious authority, coupled with government support and funding, make it a formidable presence that controls Israeli society’s rules for marriage, divorce, conversion, burial and kosher certification.  Israel is not a theocracy that demands or legislates religious behavior from its citizens, as are some countries.  But the idea of religious pluralism and tolerance, of making space for individuals to explore Judaism on their own terms and in their own way, and of tolerating different views of what constitutes appropriate Jewish practice, is frowned upon by the Chief Rabbinate.  That is precisely why the Masorti Movement is vital for Israelis who want to explore their Jewish identity in ways that are not coercive or intimidating, but inclusive and tolerant.

I encourage you to join me this Friday night to welome Gideon Aronoff, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation, who will speak to the congregation on “Religious Tolerance: Reality or Illusion?”  Gideon will share success stories from the work of the Masorti Movement and will give us all a clear reason for why Masorti Judaism is so deserving of our support.  The service begins at 8:00 PM, and Gideon will speak at approximately 8:30 PM.  I hope to see you there!

Special thanks to Will Brown, Oheb Shalom member, who suggested Peleg’s book and podcast to me.

Elusive Truth

At this year’s Scotch in the Sukkah event sponsored by the Men’s Club, we discussed the idea that truth is elusive.  Judaism places high value on speaking truth and acting with integrity, especially in business, but that does not guarantee that people will always be truthful.  Sometimes it is in our interest to lie, or at least hide the truth, sometimes to avoid incrimination or embarrassment or sometimes to get out of an awkward situation.  Understandably, the discussion focused on the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which were in full swing at the time of our gathering in the Sukkah (our theme was not primarily the scourge of sexual assault against women, which is appalling and horrific, but rather the pursuit of truth).  The consensus seemed to be that, since both parties being interviewed stated that they knew with 100% certainty what had happened some 36 years ago, someone was telling the truth, and someone was lying.  The hearing thus seemed to be more about establishing credibility and less about finding and claiming the truth.  In the absence of eye witness testimony and given that the incident is alleged to have occurred at a time prior to the flourishing of the digital age (thus no emails or video recordings to corroborate events), we sadly may never know the truth of what happened.  To aid the discussion, I suggested that while Judaism compels us to seek truth and honesty in our lives, there is an implicit acknowledgement in our tradition that it isn’t always possible to discover the truth.  Since we cannot read minds, human courts and mechanisms for establishing justice are at best imperfect.  All we can ever do is strive to be as truthful and honest as we have the courage to be.  That means that while human weakness and failing is unfortunate and unwanted, it is also inevitable.

The idea that human beings are not perfect is made abundantly clear in the opening parasha of the Torah, Bereshit, which we read this Shabbat.  Near the end of the parasha, we read this verse:

And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.  (Genesis 6:6)

The Talmudic sages are puzzled by the assertion in the verse that God, whom they believed to be omniscient, could regret having created flawed human beings if their nature was known in advance.  One Midrashic passage envisions a conversation between a sage and a heretic in which the heretic asserts that God could not be all-knowing and simultaneously not know that His creation would be imperfect.  The sage replies that God knew that human beings would be imperfect but accepted their nature.

Rashi (1040-1105, France) opines that God created human beings knowing they would be imperfect but confident that some remarkably great individuals would ultimately descend from some imperfect ones.

More broadly, the sages encourage us to try to accept the imperfect nature of being human.  In a midrash, we read:

When God came to create Adam, the ministering angels divided themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” …Love said, “Let him be created because he will carry out acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will do good deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One he will be filled with controversy.” …While the angels were arguing and fighting with one another, the Holy Blessed One created man. He said to the angels, “What can you do? Man already has been made.” (Bereisheit Rabbah 8:5)

 The Talmudic sages aren’t really asking whether human beings should have been created.  They were pragmatists who tried to understand the human condition in the light of their faith.  Their midrashic musings are instead meant to compel us to confront, to acknowledge and to accept the fact that people are imperfect.

That we are imperfect shouldn’t be used as an excuse or justification for dishonest, untruthful behavior, and certainly not for abusing and taking advantage of people.  It’s simply a reminder to us of our nature, a reminder that sometimes we will soar like angels and at other times we will ignore the Divine image within us and plummet.  The trick is always to strive to be honest, even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable, and always to seek the truth, hoping that more often than not we will find it and embrace it.