Friday, September 24, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Hol HaMoed Sukkot 5771 - G"d's Moon

For Shabbat Hol HaMoed, the Shabbat that falls during the intermediate days of Sukkot,we read Shemot 32:12-34:26. The first part is the story of when G"d shows Moses G"d's backside.Moses, because of his special relationship with G"d gets this "privilege." Spolier alert- this should clue you in to what I mean in the title of this musing.

Quite frankly, I wish the rest of us would get this "privilege" because it would be far preferable to what we are currently getting from G"d - which is bupkis. Our planet is going to hell in a handbasket. Our morals and ethics, individually and societally, are tested on a daily basis. We fight, bicker and complain, we wage war, we commit acts of terrorism.

Isn't it time for G"d to do as described in the haftarah for Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot - because Gog is probably here right now. Yet all we seem to be getting from G"d is silence or indifference.

I know, I know, I am thinking in human terms. G"d is a different sort of being, not subject to the same rules (well, there's a whole other discussion...) G"d is communicating, we're just not hearing it (or just not listening , or not noticing.) Yes, I myself have used these trite platitudes, the religious versions of stopping to smell the roses, or the ever-popular G"d helps those who help themselves.

Well, frankly, the effect is beginning to wear off.  There are times when I really feel like G"d is showing us G"d's ass. Wish G"d had the courage to moon us outright. Then at least we'd know where we stand. Without some sign, either negative or positive, we're stuck in limbo. Is there a G"d? How can there be a G"d. Hey, G"d, if you're listening, help us out here. Send us a sign that you still care - either that, or drop your drawers and just moon us all.

Irreverent? Flippant. Surely. Sincere and genuine. To some extent, yes. As someone who is willing to hold open the possibility of some kind of Divine presence in our universe, I'm tired of being on the defensive. Still not tired enough to join the ranks of the Malcolm Gladwells out there. There's still something here, some kernel that draws me in. Even more specifically, something that draws me to an understand of that Divinity through a Jewish lens. I can't explain it. By all rights, I should be a total atheist by now. Why is it that I can't bring myself to embrace that position? Oh sure, my concepts of what G"d might be are a far cry from traditional understandings. Yet, rationalist in me can;t overcome the mystic. Maybe I have particular strong G"d genes.

So forgive me, G"d of my non/mis/unsure understanding, for talking about Your ass. Still, think about what I've said. Moses got to see your whole backside. How about just a little peek?

Moadim L'Simkha v'Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, September 17, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Yom Kippur 5771 – Atone Deaf

We hear the anecdote over and over. I've certainly shared it a few times over the years. The story of how we (or someone we know) participates in Yom Kippur services, then within moments of the end of Ne'ilah has already engaged in something for which they'll say an al khet next year. It is a truism for many.

There have been a number of articles, blog posts, etc. this year (and in past years) suggesting that we put too much stock in the "once-a-year" atonement process. I agree wholeheartedly. I do believe there is value in our current practices for Elul and the Yamim Noraim - especially the power of a communal admittance of faults and a communal commitment to improvement. However, I also believe that the system can lull us into a false sense of having done enough. Atonement and working to do better are activities to be practiced daily and continually.

Nevertheless, there are also inherent dangers on being overly and continually focused on recognizing our wrongs and working to correct them. A life spent in constant inner reflection may work for some, but I daresay it won't lead to a particularly fulfilling life for many. Agreed, inclusion of the oft overlooked component of self-forgiveness can mitigate the potentially negative effects of continual self-reflection, still such a continual focus inward doesn't leave much time for  anything else.

As it always seems to be in Judaism (and life) it is about balance. Continually self-examining is not balanced. Perhaps setting aside a few minutes every day (or week, or month-whatever suits you best) to be self-reflective, atone as necessary, and resolve to do better is an efficacious approach. Saving it all up for one short time period each year isn't particularly balanced, and represents an opposite extreme.

For one who prays daily, the sort of daily self-reflectiveness I'm suggesting should happen automatically, at least if they are really taking the prayers of the liturgy to heart. That may be one path to finding this balance. Yet not everyone is so inclined or disciplined.  If that's you, you might at least give it a try. It still may not work for you, in which case you need to seek alternatives to finding the balance between the once-a-year atonement and the continual atonement. I know that's what I'm going to be doing.

Balance is one thing. It is not always so easy to achieve. If balance eludes you, then perhaps harmony might be a better approach. When creating harmony, at least musically, not everything is in balance, or fully complementary, but they do work or function well together. To some extent, I think harmony is necessary to achieve balance-because balance is not always at a fixed point. Things in life are constantly shifting, which means the points of balance are also shifting. When something is unharmonious, the various parts must work together to find the harmony again. However, there is an inherent challenge in harmony. When only one component out of many is the source of the disharmony, generally the harmonious components are expecting the disharmonious one to correct. In some circumstances, the harmonious elements might agree to all adjust to match the one who is out of harmony, thus establishing a new harmony. (Or, of course, it is possible that the one who sounds disharmonious is actually right on while the others were all off.)

So how do we create harmony when it comes to atonement? It requires being attuned (pun intended) to what's going on a round you, as well as being aware of your own pitch. This is as true in a large communal setting (such a Yom Kippur services) as it is in everyday settings.

If someone is acting different towards you, there's probably a reason. If you are acting differently, there's probably a reason. If we're "atone deaf" we might not be able to sense these things, so we need to sharpen our senses with a little practice. (I'm one who believes that no one is truly tone deaf - everyone can learn some skills to enable pitch recognition. So I guess I believe that no one is truly atone deaf. They just need to work on their skills.)

Now, not every change, or negative feeling, or bad situation is a sure sign that some form of atonement is necessary. We needn't become overly obsessed about such things. Nevertheless, there's no need to be deliberately atone deaf. Stay in tune.

Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Tov,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Ha’azinu 5771 – Imperfect Text

Oh irony of ironies. Here we have a verse that speaks of corruption and/or imperfection that is and of itself corrupt and imperfect.

The text of the first half of Deuteronomy 32:5 has been a puzzle to scholars for millennia. As it appears in the Masoretic text of the Torah, it doesn’t really make any sense. The grammar is all wrong. Scholars have posited all sorts of scribal errors as being responsible for the now (obviously, for them) corrupt text.

שִׁחֵת ל֛וֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם

Literally translated it reads:

He has dealt corruptly with him, not his sons their blemish.

Makes no sense in or out of context. Verbs, nouns and modifiers don’t agree.

The Masoretes themselves certainly understood just how “wrong” this piece of text was. This begs the question – why didn’t they edit or revise it in a way that it made sense. There’s clear evidence the Masoretes did this elsewhere, so why not here?

The committee that edited the most recent JPS translation decided upon:

“Children unworthy of Him (sic)”

It seems to work within the general flow of the text, but it’s not perfect.

Other translations largely depend on reconstructing the text, imagining it as it may have been before scribal errors crept in. Some translations require changing word order, or changing look-a-like letters, or adding or dropping letters. Vorlage, the scholars call it, from the German word for template. Translating the text from an attempted re-creation of what the original textual template might have been before it became corrupted somehow. Yes, this requires the application of a great deal of scholarship, and I won’t begrudge any scholar the attempt. Nevertheless, it seems like pretty shaky ground-even if scholars are using other extant translations (like the Septuagint) to bolster their recreation of the vorlage. Yet this is the sort of thing that a lot  of biblical scholarship is based on. Sort of akin to a criticism I often raise about archaeology, which, from a fraction of a fraction of the detritus of a civilization attempts to extrapolate all it can about that society-how it lived, worked, ate, worshipped, etc. That’s not a put down. I love archaeology, and I have great admiration for those who do the work, just as I have great admiration for biblical scholars. At best, I’m, an amateur in both areas. Yet I accept that often the work is like building a house of cards. I know this is just as true as my own biblical exegesis-and I’m willing to live with that reality. It won’t stop me from studying and commenting.

So here we have this document, which, according to some, was directly given to Moses at Sinai by G”d. So maybe G”d understands Hebrew differently? Surely, G”d would not be guilty of using bad grammar?

According to others, we have a Torah which is clearly a work of human creation, and it bears all the signs and hallmarks of having been edited and redacted, and having suffered scribal and other errors that have been perpetuated in subsequent handing downs.

Neither viewpoint makes complete sense. At the same time, both arguments have some merit. Being created by G”d does not mean the text has to be perfect – that’s just an understanding superimposed on the text through the lens of a particular way of understanding G”d. That the text has imperfections is no proof that it is of only human origin. I once again also ask why the Masoretes didn’t seek to fix this particular error in the text?

Perhaps they didn’t bother because they weren’t troubled by it. Not that they didn’t realize something was wrong with that-they couldn’t help but notice. They simply chose to overlook it, they didn’t let it bother them.

Soon we will be beginning another yearly cycle of reading the Torah. We’ll encounter it all again – warts and all. That, my friends, is what it is all about. Here is our Torah, warts and all. We can accept it, warts and all, as Divine. We can reject it because it has imperfections. We can embrace it despite its imperfections. Or we can embrace it because of its imperfections. I think you know that I fall in that last camp. I hope you enjoy Torah’s imperfections as much as I enjoy them, and that they compel you to continue to read, study, and learn.

Shabbat Shalom and Gm’ar Chatima Tovah,


©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Torah Is. (A response to an online Rosh Hashanah Experience at

I’ve not been having great experiences with the organized Jewish community lately, so today, after examining (and trying out some of)the options available to me locally, I decided to try something different in the way of a service. I watched the streaming service from from Beth Adam in Cincinnati.

I’ve been following the trailblazing efforts of this congregation and its clergy in creating true online community, and I do think they’re on to something. There is, of course, the great benefit to people who are shut-ins or otherwise unable to physically attend a service. It also serves those who might not choose (or make the effort) to attend a service in person. It also serves people like me who are intellectually curious and exploring what Judaism is and can be in the 21st century and beyond.

The service itself didn’t truly take advantage of the technology. They haven’t quite gotten there yet. They are inclusive, referring often to those “participating” online. Yet it was still pretty much an observer experience for the person watching the live stream. I think there are interactive possibilities here yet to be explored and tried. (There may have been some real time commentary going on amongst participants, but I didn’t see any on the Twitter feed-perhaps it was there on the FaceBook conversation?)

Their “makhzor” is available for purchase/download, if one cares to follow along.  Seems to me the technology allows for something much more interactive, and I encourage the folks at to consider the possibilities of incorporating more inter-activity, and adding descriptive text, transliteration, or even text to the feed. Maybe invite some online folks to do some music or present a dvar Torah. Have a screen in Sanctuary so that people there in the congregation can see interactive presentations from off-site.

However, the thrust of this blog entry is not the service and the technology, so I’ll move on and leave this discussion for the future.

Now, being familiar with the congregation (I’ve watched some streamed and archived Shabbat services, and looked over their web site pretty thoroughly) I knew going in that the service I would be observing (I’m not quite ready to say it was participatory for the online folks) might not be my particular cup of tea. Beth Adam is a humanist congregation. (They do seem to take great pains to avoid combining the term “secular” with “humanist”  and in explaining that their philosophy is not necessarily atheistic. There is room for talk of G”d, and, as their website says, their members have divergent and wide-ranging beliefs and understandings in that regard. (A skeptic, or a true atheist, might  view a lot of this as apologetics, and perhaps, to some extent, it is. I know that, for myself, someone who is not content with a totally secular humanistic viewpoint, who needs a little mystery in his theology, how Beth Adam self-describes goes a long way in making me willing to partake of their liturgical product.)

I knew to expect a liturgy that was non-traditional, for the most part. There were a few familiar liturgical components, but, for the most part, the service was one that had been crafted by, and reflected the views of the congregation. I have to admit that I did miss the traditional liturgy and text. That being said, I can say that what was substituted in its place was not random – it was thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

There was music, though not a lot of it, provided by a choir, pianist, and violinist. At least there was a choir. Since relocating here to the Jewish bubble that is the northern Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, I’ve missed that. Nobody here does anything like that. I’m, frankly, one who likes HHDays services full of music, supported by a choir. Something of a cross between true “glatt Reform”  HHD service music (which can be very “High Church”) and more folksy-camp-style stuff. Exactly the sort of service we had every year (and for which, by way of disclosure, I was choir director and accompanist) at my former congregation, Bethesda Jewish Congregation. I am one of those rare folks who likes the bombastic Gilbert and Sullivan-esque settings of Lewandowski, Sulzer and others as much as the contemporary folk/rock settings of Friedman, Klepper, Taubman, Nichols, Dropkin, et al.

In any case, the music was pleasant enough, mostly in a sort of pseudo-classical style with hints of renewal. (Think Natasha Hirschhorn.) I just wish there was more of it, and it was a little more accessible and sing-a-long-able. (Here is a place where technology could have a role. Imagine musicians, choirs, and others in off-site locations being able to contribute directly to the service in real-time.)

I was a bit thrown by one bit of Beth Adam minhag. They didn’t use any of the traditional Torah readings, and there wasn’t any real, formal “seder kriat haTorah.” Rabbi Barr did read a few p’sukim of text in Hebrew (read, not chant.) They chose, for this year, to use parts of the Joseph story. For Rosh Hashanah, it was the story of Joseph, Potiphar, and Potiphar’s wife.  For Yom Kippur, I’m led to understand, they’ll pick up with butler, baker, and all that stuff.

Fine. I can live without another hearing of the binding of Yitzkhak, or of Hannah and Eli. I can read those texts for myself and explore and think about them.

Rabbi Laura Baum gave a nice Dvar Torah centered around the Joseph story. It was, however, a very humanistic reading – not that there’s anything wrong with that (wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In any case, what really prompted me to write this blog entry was something Rabbi Baum said. To paraphrase, she said that the claim that G”d wrote the text diminishes Torah. I found that a very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. To some degree, I understand and agree with some of that sentiment. On the other hand, as I stated, I still need a little mystery in my theology.  I once had a prolonged dispute with a learned, older Reform rabbi who told me that I could not consider myself a Reform Jew if I accepted the idea of Torah mi-Sinai. My position, I explained to him, was that, while I did not presently accept the idea that the Torah was written by G”d and given to use in complete form at Sinai through Moses, I was, and would likely always be open to the possibility that maybe the Torah really was mi-Sinai. He remained steadfast in his belief that this excluded me from considering myself Reform (and this encounter is one reason why then and now, I consider myself post-denominational. I daven Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and even, albeit reluctantly, Renewal. But that’s a story for another time.)

[Sidebar: I find it wryly amusing how often I hear “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe” used and sung at services in Reform settings – although usually without the third part - “morasha kehillat Ya’akov.”]

Whether of Divine creation, Divine inspiration, or simply human creation, the Torah is. It is, in many ways, a very imperfect document. (I believe Rabbi Baum also made a reference to this as another reason to disavow Divine authorship, but, at least for me, the idea of a less-than-perfect G”d, even with all its inherent problems, is not anathema.)

Rather than accept fully the idea that claims of Divine authorship diminish Torah, I would argue somewhat the opposite. There’s a certain humility present in the idea that human thought alone was not enough to create Torah. I think this humility is necessary to combat the potential hubris that can accompany an entirely human-centric viewpoint of the world. That’s one reason I’m not a secular humanist. I’m not entirely convinced that we, as a species, are entirely capable of doing a lot of the things to which we aspire. In fact, I like the idea that there are things we don’t understand. Yes, the history of humankind demands that we add “don’t understand…yet.” I just hope we never reach the day when there is no need for the “…yet.”  Robert Browning’s “a mean’s reach…” comes to mind. Comes the day when there’s no need for “…yet” there’ll be nothing left for which to strive!

As to the point that the imperfection of Torah either excludes Divine authorship or points to clearly human authorship, I say that both are true and not true. As I have argued before in my musings and elsewhere, Torah’s imperfections are the gifts Torah gives to us that challenge us to keep turning it and turning it. Divine authorship does not diminish this brilliance. Whether Divine or human, it’s brilliant, and keeps us debating and discussing. It keeps Judaism alive and going.

[Sidebar: I can’t help interjecting at this point that here is another place for using interactive technology. Imagine, instead of a sermon, an interactive discussion. Agreed, there are possible pitfalls, but there are always workarounds.]

That (keeping Judaism alive and going) is what Rabbi Baum was asking about and talking about in her d’var. She asked us to imagine a world without Judaism – where it had nothing special to offer and had simply ceased to be. I agree with her that Torah is one, if not the prime, reason, why we need not imagine such a world. Judaism exists, evolves, continues. Torah is. Whence Torah is not always a necessary question (though I do not discourage considering it.)

Shanah Tovah,

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, September 3, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed


27 Well I know how defiant and stiffnecked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant toward the Lord; how much more, then, when I am dead! 28 Gather to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, that I may speak all these words to them and that I may call heaven and earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the Lord and vexed Him by your deeds.

So just whose fault is it anyway? Yes, we are stiff-necked, stubborn, arrogant, and prone to act wickedly.  This this simple question arises - well, why pick us then? There's an inherent flaw in the system. We're supposed to follow G"d's laws so that we may prosper, you we seem to be born with the tendency to do the opposite. G"d, couldn't you have made us a little less stubborn?

The cynic in me would say the G"d is a sadist, and made the system work this way so that G"d would have plenty of opportunities to inflict punishments up;on us for our misdeeds. That is not, of course, the G"d we are supposed to have. Or is it? Remember those self-descriptive words - gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, forgiving iniquities, yet visiting punishment for sins upon subsequent generations.

It's not at all surprising that many turned to the different understanding of G"d promulgated by Christianity. After all, it's so much easier to deal with. You are flawed and have original sin. A physical manifestation of G"d was sacrificed to atone for these sins for all time. See how much easier that is - if you can get past that "physical manifestation of G"d" thing.

Christianity also has a much better system of apologetics. Not that Judaism is lacking in such, but we're more willing to live with and accept  theological inconsistencies, so we have less of a need for apologetics.

We just accept the fact that, even though we are stiff-necked, stubborn, arrogant, and prone to misdeeds, we also have a covenant with G"d, and should strive to follow G"ds ways. We accept that we will often fail, and that there will be consequences for that. In many ways, it's a rather realistic approach to life (of course, this is sort of a chicken-egg question. How much of what we believe influences what happens in our lives?)

Yeah, it's a flawed system in many ways. Flawed as we are, seems like just what we need.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester