Monday, May 24, 2004

I'm home from my last official weekend of the year at Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, CA. I'm honored and humbled to be their spiritual leader; it's still a new role for me. I look forward to another year there, to lifecycle events and holidays and the cycle of the year and the normal bumps of life in a congregation. They are my charges and my teachers.

And now back to that exegesis paper! I get some of my best thinking done on the five hours of highway between LA and Merced. I did not get any blazing insights about Genesis 50:15-26, but I do know why I'm so drawn to that passage. It's the final reconciliation of the bruised, battered, fractured, dysfunctional family of Jacob. The next time we meet them, in Exodus, they are still a cranky and intractable bunch, but there are so many of them they aren't just a family anymore -- and clearly the last reconciliation held, because all the brothers have surviving descendants!

All families have troubles. My own family has had its griefs, heaven knows, and much of the tsuris [suffering] in any congregation has to do with ruptures between siblings, or between parent and child, or between life partners. I am drawn to Joseph because he was able to transcend the family misery; he managed to "speak upon their hearts."

Joseph has always seemed to me to be an oddball character: brilliant but forever a little different. As a kid, his judgement was terrible, but he had the good grace to learn from every mistake he made. His heart was enormous: I am astonished by a man who can look at the brothers who sold him into slavery and say, "Lookit, your intentions were not good, but God made it come out OK, so no hard feelings."


Monday, May 17, 2004

I am enchanted! I have a delicious new word:


All those syllables, for a word meaning PUN!

Folks either love 'em, or hate 'em. I'm one of the former. I have some pretty decent company, too:

For instance, Anthony Burgess, the novelist, wrote: "... plurality of reference is in the very nature of language, and its management and exploitation is one of the joys of writing."

And from Jonathan Swift: "Punning is an art of harmonious jingling upon words, which, passing in at the ears, excites a titillary motion in those parts; and this, being conveyed by the animal spirits into the muscles of the face, raises the cockles of the heart."

For more, see The Pun FAQtory.


Sunday, May 16, 2004

Ohhhh my.

I just got home from attending the ordination of four people I have known as "fifth year students" who are now "Rabbis in Israel." I listened to wise words and stirring addresses from a series of distinguished rabbis, I visited with some old friends, congratulated the new rabbis, and generally got "all fired up" for the next stage of rabbinical school. I have so much to learn! I have so much growing to do! It's a big Jewish world out there.

Someone said to me, "You'll be there in three years." All I could think was, how can I be ready in only three years?

Rabbis are "klei Torah" -- containers of Torah. All through Jewish history, a certain number of people among us have studied hard for years, learned how to learn, soaked in the tradition, immersed themselves in words of Torah (Written Torah AND Oral Torah) and then, when the time came, they have been sent out into the Jewish world by their mentors, to serve the Jewish world, and to teach others.

A year ago I stood at the Rambam's kever (grave) and renewed my committment to Jewish life and learning. Today I sat in Wilshire Boulevard Temple and found myself doing the same thing: lifting up my heart and saying to God, this is what I've got. Help me fill it with Torah, help me live up to this tradition.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Oh, my. Well, the good news is that my last test was taken, and that the official part of my second year is done. The other news (also good news, from my point of view) is that I asked for an extension on my exegesis paper, so I could get the most out of it. And that's what I'm doing now.

I'm glad I have something utterly wonderful and absorbing to do these days. Otherwise I would have to pay more attention to the news, and I don't think I could stand to do that.

All I can think, looking at the horror pictures from Abu Ghraib is that this is my tax dollars at work, my good name as an American out there in the world. Dear God.

I don't care if John Kerry will be a "great president" or not. I feel I have a moral duty to do everything I can to support his candidacy because the people who are in power currently are, in their own parlance, "evildoers." Presidents and administrations are responsible for what happens on their watches. John Kennedy understood that, and took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs (even though he could have blamed it on the CIA.)

If the Administration sloughs responsibility off on "a few miscreants" which they seem determined to do, it's the ultimate in irresponsibility. The fact that much of what was done at Abu Ghraib seems to have been within interrogation guidelines -- while many of the human beings treated in this fashion may have been arrested by mistake -- makes me wonder uneasily if we toppled Saddam, or just replaced him.

Anyway -- back to Genesis 50: 14-26. It's the reconciliation of the brothers, and the death of Joseph. I feel a special affinity for the Joseph story, and it is a privilege to spend time delving so deeply into a portion of it. If I find something useful about reconciliation (and I think I will) I'll share it here.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

I used to joke that it was a good thing that they'd hired me to work for the Outreach Department of the URJ (then UAHC), because otherwise I'd have been found standing outside meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention, grabbing people by the lapels and telling them, "Let me tell you about Torah!"

"Jews don't proselytize." The first time I was told that, I was in my 20's, I asked a Jewish acquaintence "whether you had to be born Jewish" and that was his answer. I took that to mean, Jews don't take converts (which is not the same thing, but what did I know?) and that was that for another fifteen years or so. In that time, I spent three years in an Episcopal seminary community, one year in a nondenomenational graduate school of religion, and the rest hanging around various religious communities, with lots of Jewish friends and acquaintences. Not until 1994 did I hear that sometimes people convert to Judaism as adults, and not only in connection with a marriage.

In the meantime, I heard "Jews don't proselytize" many times, usually from Jews. And I continued hearing it after my own conversion (finally, in 1996, at age 46.) I repeated it myself, always thinking, gee, I was stupid not to realize that "not proselytizing" is not the same as "not accepting converts."

Then this past six weeks, as I have studied the history of conversion in the Reform Movement, I made a startling discovery. Several of our leading rabbis, some of them presidents of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Union for Reform Judaism, have proposed exactly that: that we stop apologizing for ourselves and actively seek converts! They made it clear that they were not talking about the sort of behavior we find offensive in missionaries from other religions: not going door-to-door, not bothering people who are already affiliated, but making ourselves visible and available to those who are quietly seeking a spiritual home.

The movement as a whole has mostly avoided the issue, for a variety of reasons. We have a long history of persecution that masqueraded as Christian mission. We have a long history in which a few of those individuals who have converted -- either direction! -- have been dangerous to us. Many of us have been irritated, annoyed, or deeply offended by the tactics employed by Christian missionaries. Some of us have lost children, or grandchildren, to the proselytism of other religions. And we don't want to engage in bad behavior; we don't want to cause that kind of pain.

That's all good -- but what about the seeker who may only ask once, out of respect? What about the seeker who has already left whatever affiliation they had by birth, but who feels drawn to the Jewish people? We can be a pretty clannish bunch, and even the friendliest of us seem intimidating from outside "the tribe." Do we really need to put an obstacle course ahead of every yiddishe neshomah [Jewish soul] trying to find its way home?

There's a program called "Taste of Judaism" that the URJ offers, that simply makes Judaism visible as a house with doors and windows. It offers unaffiliated Jews a dignified way to check out the possibility of coming home to the synagogue. It also offers that yiddishe neshomah a place to ask questions and get accurate answers. And (just a nice by-product) it also lets allies of our community find out more about what we really believe and do.

As Martha Stewart would say, it's a good thing.