Friday, May 22, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Bemidbar 5769 - That V'eirastikh Li Feeling

It's a typical human response, though one would hope that G"d would be above that. As we have seen on many occasions, sadly, G"d in not above demonstrating the worst of human-like behavior. It's the dual nature of b'tzelem El"him I've pointed out before. If we are b'tzelem El"him, the El"him is btzelem anashim.

Part of me wants to be very unhappy with a G"d that exhibits all our own foibles. Part of me wants a G"d who is above jealousy, who won't act in a typically destructive macho fashion when cuckolded. Yet these are precisely the sorts of images that Hosea gives us.

Cuckolded and spurned, G"d promises to wreak havoc on Israel.
What's different about G"d's response as compared to one that is typically human, is G"d's constant ability to forgive. While G"d is not above inflicting retribution, in the end, G"d will restore the relationship in love and with love.

V'kharati lahem b'rit bayom hahu im khayat hasadeh v'im of-hashamayim v'remes ha-adamah; v'keshet, v'kherev umilkhama eshbor min ha-artez v'hishkavtim l'betakh. V'eirastikh li l'olam. V'eirastikh li b'tzedek uv'mishpat uv'khesed uv'rakhamim. V'eirastikh li b'emunah v'yada'atet Ad"nai.

"On that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky, and the creeping things of the ground; I will banish bow, sword and war from the land. I will let them lie down in safety. I will espouse you forever. I will espouse you with righteousness, justice, and with goodness and mercy. And I will espouse you with faithfulness. The you shall be devoted to the L"rd." (Hosea 2:20-22)

Now that's a G"d (and a relationship) I can get into. Long term, consistent, loving, fair, just, kind, merciful.

Bold of me to say this, but I think Hosea (and the later rabbis who expounded on his words) went astray in their analogy. We don't need the example of a bad relationship. We already know what those are like all too well. We should not see in the people Israel's relationship/covenant with G'd some sort of analog for a loving marriage between two human beings. Instead, we should see an example for what such a relationship could be/ought to be. Minus the yucky parts, of course.

Odd that I, one who takes pride in his efforts to redeem so-called irredeemable texts, has, at this moment, decided that perhaps this text shouldn't be redeemed. I neither need nor want my relationship with G"d to be compared to a marriage gone bad. Why can;t we skip all the retributive stuff? Why must G"d punish? Why must G"d seek vengeance? Why must G"d be so jealous?

Jealousy has poisoned so many relationships. Even our ancestors knew this well. So why does it figure so prominently in our understanding of G"d?

I know, I've said it myself many times in defense of Hosea--that the intent was to shock, to be over-the-top, to use deliberately difficult and troubling imagery to get our attention. I, myself, love to play the gadfly.

Yet there are times when a loving, understanding, forgiving, whisper can be so much more powerful than screaming, shouting and beating the drum.

This year, Hosea, I've decided I am going to ignore the yucky parts. I don't need to think of people in terms of cheating on their G"d, and that G"d becoming jealous and lashing out as a result. The sort of relationship I want to strive for, the sort that is exemplified by this G"d, whatever G"d is, is the one as described here by Hosea at the end of this chapter. the end of this haftarah.

Sure, you gotta take a little bad with the good. All good and all perfect is no fun and boring. However, I don't have use for a deity that insists on a lot of bad just so we can appreciate the good. I know you're trying, G"d. After all, you have commanded us to observe the Shabbat. Every seven days, we can have that v'eirastikh li feeling. Be nice to have it every day, but I'll settle for once a week if that's the best I can get most of the time. Just don't  force me to live through months, years, decades, centuries, or millennia of bad just because You're jealous and having a temper tantrum. Stick close to me, I'll stick close to you. Whisper.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, May 15, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Behar-Bekhukotai 5769 - Scared of Leaves?

It's familiar ground we've been over before. The postscript to the holiness code reminds us that we have free will, and that if we follow G"d's ways, we will reap reward, and if we are disobedient, then we will incur G"d's wrath. I'm not here to debate the relative merits of the "scare them into submission" or "obedience reaps reward" techniques. That's a discussion we've had, and can have again at another time.

This year, I want to grab a little piece of the text and twist it and reshape it to become a metaphor for our own times. Among the chastisements we receive for disobedience would be weakness of will and an abundance of fear. As the text says, "kol aleh niddaf" the voice/sound of a driven(blown) leaf shall put them to flight."
I'd like to suggest the we (and I include myself in this) have come to a place in history where once again, the sound of a driven leaf is enough to send us fleeing, or send us into a panic.

It started years ago, and has been continually exacerbated. The cries of doom and gloom in the Jewish community have been reverberating for so long that they are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf. Yet they still manage to stir up panic. With each new panic, another set of suggested cures.

Our Judaism is dying. This will fix it.
Jewish education is in a shambles. This will fix it.
Synagogue memberships are declining. This will fix it.

Well, I've got news for all of us. Most of the suggested fixes haven't worked. (As a result, we become even more cynical about the next set of proposals.) Of course, they haven't worked based on the yardstick we have established. Maybe it's not the ideas, but the yardstick that is flawed.

While it may seem odd to want to return to a system in which, with each new King or Ruler, the measure of a foot or a cubit changes, there may be some ancient wisdom in that. We may be measuring our success and failures on the basis of feet or cubits from the previous dynasty.

At the drop of a hat, with the mere sound of a blown leaf, we set off in a panic to right what is wrong with Judaism. what's our hurry? It has taken us thousands of years to get where we are. Judaism has changed and evolved quite a bit over that time, and it no doubt will change just as much over the next few thousand years. Why are we measuring things in terms of weeks, months, years, or even decades, when we ought to be thinking much longer terms.

What we need are tools that will help us persist and adapt as necessary over the long term, not short-term fixes that will bolster our numbers. In some ways, Judaism is making the same mistake that has brought our economy to the brink of collapse, looking for the quick buck.

Of late, I've been quite the pessimist. I've become increasingly concerned for the future of Judaism. Am I being reactive to the sound of blown leaves? I am beginning to think so. Time to take a longer-term view.

Though G"d provides a fairly long list of calamities that will befall us if we do not follow G"d's ways, in the end, G"d promises to remember the covenant made with our ancestors. Now that's thinking long term. Maybe it's time to stop being frightened at the sound of blown leaves, get out of panic mode, and take a good, long, hard look at what the futures holds, and how we might best be prepared for it. In the meantime, we should chill out a bit, get out of panic mode, take a deep breath, and move on. what better time for that than Shabbat?

Shabbat Shalom,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, May 4, 2009

My Jewish Education Heresy

I've never feared being the gadfly, or being the one who points out the emperor's nakedness.

So I'm finally going to come out and say out loud what I've been thinking for some time.

We need to completely divorce and separate Jewish supplemental education from the synagogues and other extant institutions.

The synagogue is a dinosaur. So is the synagogue/clergy model we use, largely shaped by what we observed our Protestant neighbors doing. Rather than create the uniquely American Judaism that I.M. Wise and others sought, American Protestantism shaped and created American Judaism. It's time to move on. Yes, this will significantly change the role of clergy. With all due respect to my rabbinical and cantorial friends, I think we have tried to turn our clergy into something they were never meant to to be. In the process, we have forced them to be our surrogate Jews, and given ourselves license to be lazy. We will always need rabbis and hazzanim. We need their advice, their understandings of the intricacies of Jewish law. We will need their spiritual counsel. We will need their particular expertise. We need them to help our communities make appropriate choices. We probably won't need them as pseudo-ministers, or as titular heads of our churches cum synagogues.

We also need to divorce Jewish education from dependency on secular models of education. What works in secular schools (and what doesn't work) is not the battle we should be fighting in Jewish education. Yes, utilize all the pedagogy and technique we can from the realm of public/private secular education, but it is time to abandon the standard classroom/school model. It barely works for secular education, and for Jewish education it has not proven particularly efficacious.

Imagine, for a moment, a new kind of independent Jewish supplemental education program. I am reluctant to even use the word "school" to describe it.

Imagine a supplemental Jewish education program that incorporates Jewish learning with music lessons and ensembles, soccer and other sports, ballet and other dance and gymnastics, theater and other arts, chess and other games, journalism, and all the many other activities with which current supplemental schools compete with for student time.

Imagine a program that offers learning opportunities 7 days a week, at all sorts of times and hours. That includes Shabbat-because there are Jews who will choose Shabbat as their preferred time for Jewish learning.

Imagine a program that includes worship opportunities not centered around the same core group of attendees and leaders, but that flow and dynamically change, shaped by the people that happen to be present.

Imagine a program that can handle both irregular drop-in attendees as well as regular attendees, making them feel equally welcome and comfortable.

Imagine a program that allows parents to participate on their own terms - not compelling their participation, yet at the same time working openly and through programming to instill the desire to participate in parents (yet at the same time not making them feel guilty when they choose to not participate.)

Imagine a program that is after-school care, after-school activities, Jewish camp, and Jewish learning, all rolled into one.

Imagine a program that gets all the kids from their secular schools to the program site, using busses, carpools, etc.

Imagine a program in which, with the help of an advisor, a family can structure and create Jewish learning experiences for their children (and for the whole family) with goals of their choosing, on a schedule of their choosing, frequency of their choosing, etc. Imagine a program in which there is constant contact between the program and the family, getting feedback, reporting on what is being studies, pointing to other resources, and, as necessary, suggesting changes and adaptations to the chosen learning path.

I can imagine it all. Can you?


This raises lots of questions. I'm making an initial attempt at a FAQ here, and I'll keep adding to it.

1. Why can't this be done in a synagogue, or within a movemental framework? It can, but the framework will be more limited. Even synagogues with the "biggest tents" still have their limiting policies and practices. And, of course, they require membership.

2. How can you accommodate b'nai mitzvah training and ceremonies without a synagogue? Well, you don't need a synagogue for many Jewish lifecycle events, do you? You don't even need a (gasp!) rabbi to get married, have a bris, etc!  A student, properly prepared, is called to the Torah, surrounded by friends and family and well-wishers. That can happen anywhere, any time. (Ooh-another heresy-having a service recognizing a student becoming bar/bat mitzvah that isn't held on Shabbat.) Some may prefer to work, at the very least, within the Mon/Thu/Shabbat cycle when Torah is normally read. Yet others may be bold enough to try other days.

3. How do you accommodate across movemental beliefs and practices? What about things like kashrut? I believe that as long as it is made clear for each and every event, activity, etc. what level of religious observance/praxis is being followed, people will be able to choose for themselves. There may indeed be times when sticking within the boundaries of traditional practice is the best solution. Yet it may not always be the appropriate solution. Situational decision-making will be required.

4. "I learned in a supplemental Jewish school utilizing classic classroom pedagogy, and I turned out OK. What's wrong with that style?" The simple truth is that there have and always will be students who will learn Judaism best in the same way they learn math and spelling and geography. So this envisioned program would certainly incorporate its share of that style of learning, so it can meet the needs of all types of learners. However, they would be only a component of the learning model, and not the primary basis of it. It's not a "school" but a learning environment in which one will find a variety of approaches to teaching and learning, both formal, informal, and yet-to-be-devised.

5. "How would such an institution support itself, in the absence of support from a parent institution like a synagogue? We all know that fw supplemental schools pay their own way, and that synagogues supplement them heavily." That's a fair question and one for which I have not yet formulated a vision. Financing is not my area of expertise, and I'd love to have some input and ideas on how to fund such a Jewish learning program.

Also, I believe that, based on what I see happening in the area of Jewish philanthropy and patterns of Jewish giving among those not rich enough to be considered philanthropic, communities will band together to insure that Jewish education is being provided for them.

6. "Won't the synagogues, JCCs, etc. see you as competition, and seek to undermine your success?" I may be completely wrong about synagogues being a dinosaur. Maybe they will survive and successfully reinvent themselves. So much the better. Nevertheless, there is a large constituency out there that isn't affiliated, or only marginally affiliated, or the "tolerant of affiliation for now as the only viable option." So I expect there is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, a constituency for such a program. Should my conjectures that the synagogue as we know it will fade away turn out to become reality, then this new model will be a necessity-and yes, it will bump heads with synagogues as they go through their death throes. I, for one, will work to keep those bumps civil.

7. "Nobody can do everything well. How do you propose to incorporate things like soccer, drama, music, chess, etc.?" Yes, that is correct. Nobody can do everything well. The key is to identify and connect with the appropriate resources. There are day schools that use the facilities of the local "Y" (and I mean YMCA, not YMHA) as their phys ed program. All sorts of cooperative ventures are possible. And there are plenty of Jewish dance teachers, soccer coaches, chess club advisors, etc. out there.

8. "Where would the physical space for such a program come from? Synagogues already have the space. Why create new spaces?" If my conjectures about the future of synagogues are right, then there will be plenty of available synagogue buildings to acquire. Yet, that may be a long time in coming. Ventures like this can start small-even be held in someone's house, a storefront, etc. If the programs work and attract people, they will expand and create or acquire facilities as necessary.

9. "Why not just fix what we've got? There are successful supplemental schools, and reports that help us identify what characterizes such schools." I've been working in supplemental Jewish schools for almost 3 decades now. There are lots of great things going on in these programs. Despite those best efforts, the decline in enrollment, funding, and interest continues. Expectations get lower every year. (There are those who say that if we just keep the expectations high, we can stem the tide. To them I say that the wave has already crested. The die are cast. The moving hand has written and moved on. Keeping the expectations high will work, if we are satisfied to keep only a small core, a tiny fraction of our present already dismal enrollments. I'm not yet ready to cast my lot with the "in-reach only" folks. If a new Judaism is to be built, it needs to include all Jews.)

So offer your comments, your rebuttals, etc. I'll do my best to respond.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769 (Redux 5761) Schroedinger's Cat and Torah

Intro 5769

An oldie but a goody from 2001. Enjoy this mix of scientific and spiritual piffle. In the 8 years that have passed since I wrote this, I've come to see that, while, on the one hand, this piece was an interesting dance on the head of a pin, it was a somewhat trivializing attempt to blend science and theology. I've long since come to believe that theology cannot and should not be used to explain theology, and vice versa. Where once I found ideas like those expressed in "What the Bleep Do We Know" and "What the Bleep Do We Know: Down the Rabbit Hole" intriguing, I now see them as the sort of silly concept that some have labeled "quantum mysticism" and as espousing pseudo-science and as a somewhat gross misunderstanding of quantum theory. Nevertheless, I think my basic overall point, which really is another way of stating the concept of "reader response" (as a field of biblical interpretation) remains on the mark. The observer's encounter with Torah does matter. What do you think?

Schroedinger's Cat and Torah

Incongruities. You gotta love 'em!

Twice in Kedoshim we are reminded to not become involved with ghosts, or any kind of divination. And the stern warnings against following the practices of others, or worshipping idols or other G"ds is emphasized repeatedly here and elsewhere in Torah. Yet in Acharei Mot we have this crazy go "l'azazel" business. The folks at "Torah Tots" jokingly call it a sort of "X-File" - a great mystery of the Torah. And if we go back a bit, there's always good ol' Umim and Tumim! (Say, why didn't they just use the Urim & Tumim to decide which goat was for Gd and which was for Azazel?)

Well, incongruities often get me thinking. Two sides of my brain argue. One saying these are incongruous and one arguing that there are no incongruities whatsoever-that the idea that things are incongruous is a human-imposed
layer of thinking upon the Torah.

Well, I, too, used to find myself very troubled by these seeming incongruities. Slowly, though a process of discovery which involves both knowledge of Judaism and of human physical science, I have come to realize that there aren't really incongruities at all. The Torah is simply in line with the physical properties of the Universe-and of course, it should be, since the same entity created both! and what brought me to this understanding? It was no other than dear old Schroedinger's cat.

For the non-physics-minded among you, Erwin Schroedinger, a physics professor, demonstrated a primary principle of the understanding (at that time) of quantum mechanics. Schroedinger postulated that observation interacts with quantum reality-that is, it is the observation of an uncertain event that causes the event to resolve into a definitive form. A cat is placed in a box, together with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, and the geiger-counter detects an alpha particle, the hammer hits a flask of prussic acid (HCN), killing the cat. Before the observer opens the box, the cat's fate is tied to the wave function of the atom, which is itself in a superposition of decayed and undecayed states. Thus, said Schroedinger, the cat must itself be in a superposition of dead and alive
states before the observer opens the box, "observes" the cat, and "collapses" it's wave function.

Don't worry if you don't get it. The point is that matter or things (or situations in the Torah) can be in more than one state until they actually interact with an observe (i.e., a reader/interpreter)

That is, the mitzvot of Torah, the lessons of Torah, the words of Torah don't resolve themselves into a definitive concept until someone interacts with them. And each interaction, just as with Schroedinger's cat, can be random and different.

Finally coming to this understanding of the Universe and Torah, I see now the futility and foolishness of pursuing apparent incongruities in the Torah. There aren't any until we read it. And for some, the act of reading will make an incongruity, and for others not. so it's not what's in the's what we do!

And doesn't that put a whole different spin (forgive the physics pun) on "naaseh v'nishma," "we will do and then we will listen."

Is this a liberal or traditional interpretation of Judaism and Torah? I say it's both..and remains so...until you encounter it and make it one or the other.

So don't let anyone tell you Torah and science don't mix well. The more we "discover" about our universe from a scientific standpoint, the more we come to realize that the Torah describes it perfectly already.

Recognize the power you have to alter the course of the universe (and if that's not free will, I don't know what is!) Until you open that cover or unroll that scroll, what's inside can be many things at once. But once you encounter and start reading, you collapse wave fronts all over the place and turn uncertain words into a concrete interpretation. Just remember your concrete interpretation may not be the same one that some else creates when they have the same encounter.

Some Closing Thoughts from 2009

I still think my "reader response" idea is on target. I'm less certain about using that to ignore the seeming incongruities. I have written in other musings about other possible explanations for incongruities-for example, that they are purposeful as attention-getters. Yet others can be shown to not be incongruous at all. So I no longer subscribe to the idea that one's quantum interaction with Torah obviates the need to pursue incongruities. Nevertheless, there is still something intriguing to the idea of free will being somehow being connected to, or a product of quantum interactions. Pseudo-science? Yes. Quantum mysticism? Yes. Still, the Bard had it right when he wrote "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester (parts ©2001)