May 2009

The holiday of Shavuot, which begins Thursday night, commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Among the traditions of the holiday is to read the Book of Ruth, one of the five “scrolls” of the Bible which are read on Jewish holidays (the others being: Lamentations on the 9th of Av; Ecclesiastes on Sukkot; Esther on Purim; and Song of Songs on Passover).

Why do we read Ruth on Shavuot? The first-millennium CE collection of Rabbinic literature called Ruth Rabbah states: “This scroll [of Ruth] tells nothing either of cleanliness or of uncleanliness, neither of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” (2.13) Yet this further begs the question: What does the theme of kindness have to do with Shavuot?

On Passover we read the Song of Songs. The verdant imagery of the book corresponds with the springtime when Passover takes place. The love between God and Israel is on full display, and Song of Songs evokes that loving sensibility. Convesely, Ecclesiastes is the book of an old man, someone in the autumn of his life, and comes at the end of a more adult series of holidays–Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

Ruth and Shavuot come in the middle of this cycle, and the story is one of a mature love between an older man, Boaz, and a younger woman, Ruth. More than that, though, it conveys neither the deeply emotional tone of Song of Songs nor the reserved and cautious tone of Eccliastes. Rather, its message, as the Midrash states, is that lovingkindness and altruistic behavior–hesed in Hebrew–are at the core of an enduring relationship. Set as it is in famine-stricken Israel, it is fundamentally the story of people who treat each other with kindness and dignity, and who in doing so redeem the possibility of a future. That future is a Messianic future, as Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of King David. Their altruism, their ability to do good even when all around them would tell them to be selfish, is what enables a future of prosperity and plenty to come about.

Shavuot thus forms the fulfillment of the possibilities granted to the Jewish People by the freedom of Passover. Freedom from bondage is not enough. The true manifestation of freedom comes only with responsibility, with recognizing our fellow-travelers and asking, as Ruth so poetically does, “What can I do for you?”

Chag sameach – Happy Shavuot

The Book of Numbers derives its name from multiple countings of the Israelites that occur in the book, which led the ancient rabbis to call it sefer pikudim or Book of Countings. In the first census, which comes at the very beginning of the book and this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses that only men age 20 and over are to be counted. According to the 13th century French commentator Hizkuni, this is because at age 20 “they are age-appropriate to go out in an army at war.” The simple explanation of the instruction is thus that the Israelites are preparing to enter the land of Canaan, and will likely have to fight, and therefore they need to know what forces they have.

But there is an additional dimension of the command that is particularly salient in the context of working with emerging adults. Why is age 20 appropriate? It is generally when human beings are at their physical peak–when they are full of energy and vitality, and when they have an adult mind to go along with their bodily attributes. Thus 20-year olds make ideal soldiers. But in peacetime, or when they are not compelled to go to war, 20-year olds must channel those same attributes into positive pursuits. And that isn’t necessarily simple.

In our culture, as to a lesser degree in the ancient world, being 20 years old means wrestling with one’s desires and one’s responsibilities, with working out what one’s life story has been and could be–what it means to be authentic to oneself. All of which can be a messy process. (In fact, I hope it is. As I tell my students, they are paying far too much money for college not to provoke at least one major identity crisis in four years.)

In 1970 the great (Jewish) literary critic Lionel Trilling delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, which were published as a book called Sincerity and Authenticity. Among many fascinating points, Trilling reminds his listeners of “the violent meanings which are explicity in the Greek ancestry of the word ‘authentic.’ Authenteo: To have full power over; also, to commit a murder. Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide.” Sometimes, says Trilling, we forget “how ruthless an act” it can be to assert one’s individuality in the face of a culture that requires obedience and conformity.

While one cannot equate military service with the life of a young adult in college, the Torah’s point, with an assist from Trilling, is deeply resonant. The work of authenticity can be violent and scary. Many students find this resonance when they encounter Israeli soldiers for the first time on Birthright Israel trips. “They’re just like me,” is a frequent reaction. Yes and no. Not in the outward sense. But the inward struggles, the work of integrating mind, body, and heart, are common to the life of a soldier and the life of a person emerging into the world of adulthood. The task of the older generations is to be hospitable, to usher these young people into the world of adult responsibilities and channel their energy and creativity into pursuits that enrich life on the planet.

Shabbat shalom.

Last night NU Hillel hosted a fantastic end-of-year appreciation reception. Four years ago I couldn’t have imagined it–well, I could have, but we were a long way from making it happen. 120 people, from an immense diversity of Jewish backgrounds, sharing stories, eating yummy treats, and enjoying Jewish life together. I am profoundly proud, and deeply grateful. Here are two videos from the event (which also represent my first foray into editing). Thanks to Shauna Perlman for shooting the footage.

One of the great inefficiencies in Jewish education stems from the fact that so many of we educators have to labor intensively to put together new materials. We have to find sources, we ask our colleagues for curricula and lessons. It’s cumbersome and time consuming. For a long time now I’ve dreamed that someone–please!–would create a central database of curricula and sources, tagged and searchable. And lo and behold, my good friend Aaron Dorfman and his crack team at AJWS have come through. (Full disclosure: I’m on their advisory board.)

Introducing, a major accomplishment in Jewish life as far as I’m concerned. It will be worth watching who uses the site and how, and what impact it has. A welcome innovation.

I have been slow to respond to Gary Rosenblatt’s important column from two weeks ago. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is the key nugget:

We need to think on a communal level which values and lifestyles we are willing to sacrifice and which are most important to keep.

Now my wife would say that I am given to imagining apocalyptic scenarios. But of course I also predicted a major financial collapse in the U.S. for a while now, so my prognostications have to be worth something. Gary is right of course: We are at a moment of reckoning, and old assumptions for all our nonprofits, and particularly our day schools, have to be reassessed and addressed honestly.

As one of my teachers told me years ago, “You send your kids to school to be socialized. Anything you really want them to learn, you have to take responsibility for yourself.” Now I don’t quite believe that. I do think my kids actually learn stuff at school, and I have great confidence in their teachers. But having seen many products of expensive Jewish day school educations in my current work, I can testify that all of them come out with fine college prep in secular studies; but many, if not most, have been allowed to neglect their Jewish studies. Indeed, for many, their Jewish courses don’t even show up on their transcripts. To me this is a serious indictment, and it reinforces my teacher’s point: Many people send their kids to day school as a way of socializing them with other Jews, but not in an effort to develop a serious engagement with Torah.

I find something pernicious in the idea of having the state pay for “secular studies,” since that means they can never be integrated with religious studies. But I find something even more problematic in our rigorous approach to secularism in this country–which Gary addresses in his column. At the same time, as a product of public schooling myself, I think there’s something to be said for a public school education coupled with a rigorous commitment to Torah study and rich informal Jewish education.

Like Gary, I don’t have the answers. But I do see the writing on the wall, and it’s about time we had a community conversation about what we want, what is possible, and what our priorities are.

A nice piece in yesterday’s NYT about the lost art of reading aloud. The guts:

It’s part of a pattern. Instead of making music at home, we listen to recordings of professional musicians. When people talk about the books they’ve heard, they’re often talking about the quality of the readers, who are usually professional. The way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient.

But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language. But one of the most basic tests of comprehension is to ask someone to read aloud from a book. It reveals far more than whether the reader understands the words. It reveals how far into the words — and the pattern of the words — the reader really sees.

It almost goes without saying that Jewish reading is reading aloud. Likro, ‘to read’ in Hebrew, is also ‘to call out.’ We read aloud from the Torah in synagogue, and we study Jewish texts by reading them aloud to one another. And there’s this great little story from the Talmud: “Beruriah once met a student who was studying quietly. She kicked him, and taught him that one’s learning will be preserved only if he engages all of his limbs in it.” (Eruvin 53b-54a)

What I think is most salient about the NYT article is that silent reading, and listening to audio books is, at root, about convenience. It is definitely inconvenient to read in community, just as it is inconvenient to live in community–even with only a single other person. “Hell is other people,” according to Sartre. The minute another person enters our world, we have to communicate, negotiate, agree on meanings. What a pain in the ass. How inconvenient, and therefore how at odds with the world we’ve built for ourselves.

Community requires sacrifice. It requires work. It demands inconvenience. But the reward, of course, is a deeper existence in which, ironically, we actually know ourselves more deeply.

Schepping a little nachas here from my student Benjamin.


The Torah portion of Emor is composed of two halves. The first deals mostly with laws pertaining to the priests (Kohanim), the second with the cycle of festivals. In summing up the first section and leading into the second, the Torah offers some stirring words:

“Keep my commands and follow them. I am the LORD. Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am the LORD, who makes you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev. 22:31-33)

The ancient Rabbis understood the commandment to sanctify God’s name as addressing the most extreme circumstances: When one is forced to choose between publicly giving up one’s Judaism or being killed, a Jew is to choose the latter. This is a commandment of martyrdom. (This is distinct from the traditional rabbinic understanding that all mitzvot may be set aside to save a life, including one’s own, except for murder, idolatry, and sexual sins. The particular commandment of sanctifying God’s name has to do with the public nature of the circumstances; it is therefore only invoked when ten Jews are present, which constitutes a public.)

This is a potentially troubling commandment. In an age when the specter of religious violence and the language of martyrdom pose real threats to Jews in particular and humanity as a whole, how do we learn from this commandment?

In distinction from those who would martyr themselves by killing others, the Torah clearly makes no such provision. The Torah’s allowances for taking life are narrow and limited and inapplicable here.

More to our point, an essential Big Question of human experience is “What would you die for?” If we don’t know the answer to this question, then we don’t really know the answer to its inverse: “What are you living for?” What is most important to us? What is so important that we are willing to put ourselves in harm’s way on its behalf? Granted, most of us will hopefully never encounter the situation described by the Rabbis. But all of us encounter shades of it every day: We make decisions to spend time and money in this way and not that, and in so doing we write the story of our lives. What guides us in those decisions? What is ultimately most important?

What the Torah does here is to remind us that we must always view our stories from the standpoint of the story that will be told. When confronted with a choice, we ask ourselves, “What should the story be here?” We want our lives to be noble, we want our memories to be for a blessing. The work of making them so happens now, in every moment, while we are here on the planet.

Shabbat shalom.

I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the University of Michigan hospital, along with my mom and brother, as my dad has had surgery. (He’s doing great, btw.) One of the things you do in the hospital is walk around a lot–you need to stay close enough to be of assistance if necessary, but you also need to move your legs.

Michigan’s is an exceptional hospital. As a visitor, I notice that their signage is ample and clear, that employees are quick to ask whether they can help you find anything, and that the architecture is generally bright and welcoming.

university-of-michigan_logojpg2One of the other things I’ve noticed is that the hospital invokes a sense of ritual to remind itself (and its guests) of its aspirations. If you walk along the hallway towards the medical school (which is attached to the hospital), you encounter frame after frame of class pictures for the last 100+ years of med school classes. Fraternities do this too. It communicates to everyone that there’s a long tradition here, and that the school is proud of its graduates.

There are also enormous banners hanging in the main atrium, with photos of patients and doctors behind words from the Michigan fight song: “Hail to the victors valiant, Hail to the conquering heroes, Hail, hail to Michigan, the leaders and best.” As a kid who grew up singing the Victors at football and basketball games, the song has a deep imprint on me, as it does on most people associated with U of M or Ann Arbor. To see the lyrics in print strikes me as a little corny. But when you see a 20-foot picture of a guy with a huge scar on his chest and the words “Hail to the conquering heroes,” it’s very moving.

What the hospital administration has very consciously done here is invoke the practices of ritual. In both cases, the photos serve as a mirror of the aspirations of the hospital community: This is who we are, this is what we’re about. In the case of the banners with the fight song words, they remind all who see them of the larger purpose, the higher vision, of which they are in pursuit. By evoking (literally) the music of the song, they also trigger the deep emotional associations that singing with 100,000 people at a football game brings about, and unify what might otherwise appear to be two disparate parts of the campus (the football team and the hospital; though the two actually share a lot in common–a focus on the body, service to the larger community, and the status of revenue-generators and profit centers).

Northwestern, and many others, could learn from this example.

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