Friday, March 15, 2019

The Lord's Prayer: A Jewish Perspective

There is a powerful prayer which Christians routinely pray when they get together to worship.  They bow their heads, close their eyes, and in respectful solemn hushed tones say the words they believe Jesus taught them to say.  It is perceived to be a Hebrew prayer which quietly petitions God for daily bread and forgiveness.  It is all that but much more.

Think about what the words of this prayer are saying.  The prayer begins by reminding God of God’s intimate familial relation to the community, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  The next verse is what the prayer is all about.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  This is a prayer calling on God to act like God and bring in the long-awaited kingdom of God.  “On earth as it is in heaven” says the prayer.  Implied is the message: There is so much craziness in this world; You, God must act and act now!

There then begins a series of imperatives directed at the deity: “Give us this day our daily bread, forgive our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.”  These are imperatives directed at God encouraging God to act like God. 

The prayer concludes with a later added ending, reminding God “for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.”  That is, you, God have the power and the glory to bring in the kingdom.  Get to it and get to it now!!!

This is a prayer from people who are aware of the ambiguity, fragility and unpredictability of life.  This is a prayer from people who have experienced the silence of God.  The Lord’s prayer is indeed a respectful plea for God to act like God.  How such prayers effect God are beyond our ken.  But the prayer is intended for us more than for God.  It is intended to keep us sane in the midst.

Here is a prayer Jews and Christians can pray together, and together wonder if anyone is listening, trusting against trust someone is.

Friday, March 8, 2019

On the Shelf

I love my books.  I love being surrounded by my books at my office.  But, on occasion students will come into my office and marvel at all my books.  Then they ask that terrible question, “Have you read all of these?”   I answer, “Some of them twice.”

Academics collect books and they read some of them.  For me and maybe for you too, books can be aspirational.  I want to have read them and their being on my shelf speaks of their potential chance of being read. 

There are books on the shelf I have read.  There are books I want to read.  There are books I think I should read.  There are books I will never read but I want them there on the shelf like people I hope to call one day and see how they are doing.  On the shelf is a place of honor. 

The shelf is a special mysterious place.  Over the years there are thousands of books that have not been allowed to live on the shelf.   Some do not make it.  Over the years I have removed them from the shelf.  Having a limited shelf involves mulling and culling.

In the end, I suspect it has largely to do with literary triage.  What I think is most important right now gets read.  The rest are compelled to wait.  Most books sit there patiently waiting, day after day, hoping against hope they will be read someday soon.

If you, like me, have collected books on the shelf, be proud of your books.  Read what you can and forgive yourself for those you haven’t read.  There is only so much time.  Surround yourself with books and you will never be alone. The shelf is a holy sacred place where only a few get to wait.

Friday, March 1, 2019

The Five Seasons of Baseball

Judaism and Christianity have various holy days which occur during specific seasons of the year.  The purpose of these seasonal holidays is to cause people in their respective communities to remember, celebrate, and live out key events within the tradition.  These holy days remind us to be hopeful despite what is going on.  While Baseball is not a religion, it has its own seasons and functions in a similar manner.

In fact, Baseball has five seasons. We are presently living through the Spring Training season.  This is a distinct time when the various teams gather together either in Florida or Arizona to remember how to play the game.  Pitchers remember how to pitch and hitters hit, fielders field, catchers catch and everyone tries not to get hurt.  There is a long and cherished tradition of meeting in the Spring to examine young and up and coming players and for older players to get into shape for the next season.  Fans travel to these sites, surround the players with love and grace along with financial contributions or offerings.

The second season is what some have called “the regular season”, 163 games played over six months.  During this time teams or denominations compete against each other to see who can score the most runs.  Fans, mostly with grace, forgiveness along with copious amounts of sacramental beer and hot dogs, attend the games, sometimes in large number and sometimes as a small congregation.  As soon as they step into the other world of the holy stadiums, they immediately begin to relax.

The next season is where the best few teams compete in a short series of games in a conclave called the playoffs.  These short tense meetings, akin to synod conventions, do not necessarily prove which team is best, but which team has the best pitching and can be effective over a few games.  Some people are happy with the results.  Some are not. Some never will be.

The Fourth season is the World Series.  Even unbelievers in Baseball pay attention during these high holy days.  This is a best of seven game contest which ultimately crowns the World Champions of Baseball, the kings of kings and Lords of lords of the sport.

Finally, there is the off-season or sabbath where everyone rests a bit except for general managers who are always busy with money and personnel issues. 

Baseball is a game and a business, big business, sometimes too big.  But it is also a sacred and holy part of our culture. It is where we remember who we are, our imagined youth, our pretended innocence and our yearning for simplicity though there is nothing simple about Baseball.  

As the famous speech from “Field of Dreams” asserts, “And they’ll walk out to the bleachers and sit in shirt-sleaves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d been dipped in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.  This field, this game, it’s part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

The five seasons of Baseball allow us to yearn for simpler times, to hope against hope, to trust once again.   In that way, it is quite religious.

Friday, February 22, 2019

But I Respectfully Disagree

I understand the Christian faith, but I respectfully disagree.  For many years I have struggled with my decision, as a young man, to convert to Christianity.  My decision produced deep guilt, shame and many sleepless nights.  Eventually I returned to my community.

While conversions are a reality and some people need to convert, for me that was not true. I could not run away from myself.  The longer I hung around with Lutherans, the more Jewish I felt.  Over many years I became aware of the visceral toxic anti-Judaism inherent inside Christian scripture and tradition.  During those days, I told my closest friends, “To be a faithful Christian, it felt like I had to shoot at myself.”  

But there were other reasons as well.  The Christian faith which proclaims Jesus to be divine and the Messiah was no longer viable for me.  Jewish expectations concerning the Messiah are:  1) The temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, 2) There will be peace all over the world, 3) The Jewish people will all live in peace in the land of Israel and 4) Non-Jews will flock to Israel to study Torah with Jews.   These expectations have not been met in Jesus and Christian attempts to redefine those expectations have not been convincing.

All these reasons were intensified by my study of the Holocaust in which many of my relatives were killed. My own parents had survived by accident.  In this event which occurred in Germany, a country half Roman Catholic and half Lutheran demonstrated how hatred and murder of Jews could be supported by a majority within a Christian land.  Only a small extraordinary minority resisted and helped some Jews escape.  During the 1990’s, I visited the concentration camps in which many Jews had been murdered.  During the winter of 1999, I was in Boston, met with Elie Wiesel and sat in his classroom.  I decided I must return to my community, which I did in the year 2000.

I felt deep guilt and shame for having left my community.  I have worked through the guilt and shame, but it can still rear its head.  Today I wear a skullcap every day to remind myself never to forget that I am Jewish.  I am a healthier saner person these days and I am sleeping well.

To be clear, the Christian faith has its place, but I respectfully disagree.

Friday, February 15, 2019

I Remember Four Rabbis

When I was a boy, I attended a modern orthodox Yeshiva, a Jewish parochial school.  I remember well the Rabbis I had in that place.  The bus picked us up for school at 7 in the morning.  We started school at 8 a.m. and studied Hebrew subjects until noon when we ate lunch and went up on the roof for some recess.  In the afternoon, we had English subjects, until 5 p.m. I loved the mornings and tolerated the afternoons.

In the first grade my Rabbi was a man named Steinberg.  He was a gentle but strict teacher.  He was an older man with white hair who cared deeply about his students and who loved the Hebrew language.  He taught us the aleph bet, or ABC’s.  More importantly he taught us to recognize the power of the Hebrew letters.  He told us the letters themselves were holy and to write them with pride.  We had these blue flimsy lined notebooks in which we practiced and practiced and practiced the script of each letter.  He told us the letters had the power to hide us when we were scared and the power to give us courage when we were frightened.  Years later, Rabbi Steinberg would teach me what I needed to know for my Bar-Mitzvah.

Second grade brought a very serious and demanding teacher, Rabbi Frost.  Rabbi Frost was a younger red faced man who walked around the room carrying a ruler.  Anyone misbehaving or not paying attention was told to hold out his hand which then received a swift hard swat from an angry teacher. Rabbi Frost never joked or smiled, as I remember.  He was engaged in serious business.  We studied the Book of Genesis and Rabbi Frost told us to pay attention to the white spaces between the letters because that is where the truth was hidden.  I do not remember ever feeling his wrathful ruler, but I do remember his deep concern for the scripture and the holiness of the letters.

Rabbi Lipshutz was my third-grade instructor and I loved him.  He was a kind, caring man with a good sense of humor.  He was tall with a full black beard.  I sat right next to his desk as the class explored the book of Exodus.  He taught us to love the questions the scripture raised and to never let the answers destroy the questions.  He trained us to ask good questions and to feel free to dispute even the most honored sages.  He was convinced the scripture intentionally left gaps for Jewish boys to explore akin to investigating a cave.  To me it was like a great adventure!

Rabbi Eisenblaat’s fourth grade class was memorable.  The Rabbi was a short portly black bearded man who taught us to chant the text in Yiddish and Hebrew.  As with Rabbi Lipshutz, questions were vital, and he forcefully compelled us to find the questions in the stories.  One day we were studying a text in Genesis.  He asked me what the great commentator, Rashi said about a problem in the story.  I told him but then he pursued me and asked, “Was Rashi right?”  I was in fourth grade and he forced me to consider the question if Rashi was right.  Because of his persistence, I finally had to admit Rashi could be wrong.  Whereupon Rabbi Eisenblaat smiled.

These Rabbis taught me the beauty of being Jewish and the wonderful questions within the Bible.  It gives me great pleasure to remember them today and to give them honor for the power of their teaching.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Problem With Mr. Trump

It has been two years and we have had a good chance to see this man and what he is about as a human being.  We have given him a chance.  What can we say?

He seems to lie at will.  He prides himself on his unpredictability to a fault.  He takes offense easily and attacks others without much thought or civility.  He disturbs us with his obnoxious crudity.  He does not like to read, he does not think very well but he thinks he knows; whatever he thinks he knows, he knows emphatically.   He seems to skirt the law when he can, occasionally getting caught.  To say it most accurately, he’s not a nice person.  And when he tweets and speaks, many of us are embarrassed. Such is the public persona he has cultivated.

Whatever his policies, some worthwhile, some not, certainly arguable, I think what most upsets thinking people about Mr. Trump is the character of the man.  We want our Presidents to honor us by their presence or at least act like it.  The problem with Mr. Trump is he has not shown himself to be an honorable man. 

Our upset with his behavior is not merely political, it’s religious.  Our religions teach us what it means to be a human being.  We care about the civility and morality of our leaders.  Over the years, we have had a variety of characters in the White House, some better than others.  But we took one thing for granted.  Republican or Democrat, we naively assumed or wanted to assume most of our politicians were decent caring public servants.  And so, we expect our President to be an honorable person.  Mr. Trump has disappointed us. 

Churchill was correct:  Democracy is the worst form of government but better than all the others.

Mr. Trump is here and one day will disappear.  What must we learn from this experience?  It’s not only important to vote, it’s important to vote with wisdom.   And we need to move away from being impressed by celebrities, by the most entertaining, the best orator, or most good-looking candidate.  Enough of us need to care about the soul of our national leaders.  We ought not vote merely out of self-interest or national interest but an abiding interest in wisdom, integrity, character and above all honor.  Mr. Trump is a warning to us all.  Be careful.

We will survive Mr. Trump and I hope our better angels will learn the lessons well.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Friends and Friendship

The Biblical text declares, “It is not good for Man to be alone.”  What’s the problem with being alone?  I know introverts who love to be alone, who tell me they do not need to be around other people to survive and thrive.  Alone can be peaceful.  Alone means no one is aggravating or exasperating you.  Alone declares, I am self-sufficient.  Alone is solitude without loneliness.  Alone has its place.  I respect alone.

So, why do the scriptures warn us against being alone?  Because when you are alone, you can deceive yourself.  You can worry about things when worrying will not help.  You can have all sorts of unnecessary anxiety.  You can convince yourself of almost anything.  You can make bad decisions.  You can think you are right when you are wrong. You can drive yourself crazy.

I work hard, sometimes too hard, to maintain my friendships.  My close friends are what keep me sane.  My friends listen to my ramblings, my “serious” concerns, my ridiculous worries, and are honest enough to tell me where I’m full of it, where I'm wrong, where I am sounding crazy.  Left to myself and only myself, I find it too easy to go to a bad spiral place in my mind. 

Having friends takes me away and off myself.  Asking how things are with them, listening to their struggles, sharing their pain and their good fortune rescues me from the introspective sickness of, “I, me mine.” 

The human brain is agile but also fragile.  When we are not getting enough sleep; when we are not eating well, when we are overstressed, we are not thinking well.  I wish for you a friend who will walk through your craziness with you, someone who will cry and laugh with you, someone who knows you better than you know yourself.

Harold Kushner says it well: “Human beings are God’s language.” 

A variant of the old poster saying is also true,

“Friends are people who know everything about you and still stay with you.”  
"It is not good for Man to be alone."