Friday, March 3, 2017

On Crohn's Disease and Mindfulness Retreats

Like so many Ashkenazic Jews, including several in my immediate and extended family, I suffer from (a relatively mild form of) Crohn's Disease.  Explanations for the disease remain elusive, with explanations and research suggesting a variety of genetic and environmental factors resulting in this autoimmune disorder (an overactive immune system attacks the body it's supposed to serve).  But whatever the cause, the symptoms are quite real; chronic inflammation of the digestive tract (often but not always in the Terminal Ileum at the end of the Small Intestine) leads to abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea and frequent bowel movements, bleeding, weight loss, fatigue, and more. Pleasant.

Psychologically, it can be challenging.  Frequent trips to the bathroom and fear of the same transform simple activities into stressful ones.  Commuting to work - where are the bathrooms on the way? Speaking in public - perhaps I shouldn't eat all day so I don't have to suddenly use the bathroom? You get the drift.  Performing the simple tasks of life can become quite complex and emotionally draining, aside from the physical symptoms themselves.

In the summer of 2016, I signed up for a four (4) part mindfulness retreat series with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, heading into the retreat in the midst of a flare up.  The retreats, located at serene centers in coastal California and rural Maryland, respectively, were calm and isolated.  Surrounded by beautiful natural settings, wildlife, expansive skies, and relative quiet, I watched to see how my body would react, with both worry and curiosity.

As the days wore on, I noticed that Crohn's flares and inflammation died down, despite a steady diet of chickpeas and legumes, foods I normally find problematic.  While stress isn't the only factor, being on a mindfulness meditation retreat allowed me to really notice, in more than a passing way, the stress I had been carrying in my kishkes, as they say.  This same quality has repeated itself on each of the two subsequent retreats (I still have one to go), and I'd like to share the combination of factors that seems to have worked for me:

1)  Disconnecting
For these retreats, I lacked virtually all cell service (use of cellular phones was proscribed and discouraged in any event) and did not sign on to e-mail.  Without the possibility of communicating, I dropped awareness of pending/ought to be/should have already been communications from my mind. That fight I was having about a misinterpreted e-mail . . . no possibility of dealing with it now.  The form I forgot to send to the car people to correct the errant tax bill . . . next week.  What if someone needs to get in touch . . . they'll deal.  This served both to teach a powerful lesson of humility - if I drop off communication for a week, the world keeps spinning just fine - but also to remove a constant white noise of anxiety that permeates my life, and probably yours too.

2)  Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness can be described as a compassionate and full awareness of the present moment. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't mean ignoring the past or turning a blind-eye to present problems.  It's about turning fully to those emotions, thoughts, memories, and moods, as they arise, and cultivating a full awareness of what they are and are not.  It's about learning that analytical thoughts and passing emotions don't have to become our identity, and that we can cultivate another way of being, an aware, awake state.  It's about becoming masters over our own lives, and recognizing, in our increasingly hectic world, that the literally millions of stimuli that enter our orbit each day don't have to control our emotions and moods; we're not puppets in someone else's show.  We can choose to turn toward our thoughts and emotions, with intention, and we can chose to be present fully elsewhere too.  It's about enjoying the taste of food, fully, when we're eating, and listening lovingly when we're with family.  In this way, our responses in each moment change to become more appropriate, and we learn to reclaim presence and enjoyment in our lives.  The formal meditation training on the retreats I went on included classic breathing meditation (becoming aware of the breath, and gently noticing when awareness drifted to other thoughts or sensations, noticing that moment, and returning to awareness of the breath, again and again, as a way of anchoring in the ever-dynamic present).  It consisted of walking meditation as well (noticing the sensation of, well, walking, while walking).  But the practice pervaded the whole retreat, whereby we were encouraged to maintain a general state of awareness and mindfulness.

3)  Silence
The quiet solitude, punctuated usually by sounds of chirping birds or raindrops (okay, sometimes food delivery trucks too), certainly helped. Silent meals, too, allowed me to stop worrying about engaging others around me.  The quiet simply allowed me to settle in to a calm place that brought about an ease of being and an ease of digestion.

4)  Yoga
Rather than merely engaging in fitness, a mindful body practice allowed for increased sensation in different parts of the body, and allowed me to work through the physical stress and tightness that comes from having a chronic autoimmune disorder.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, moods, and physical sensations exist in a dynamic loop.  We're prone to forget, in the west, that we're physical creatures living in bodies.  A Crohn's flare and the resulting worry/social anxiety, I learned empirically, can easily cause me to go down a memory-lane field trip of the most anxious moments of early childhood, or worse, middle school.  This can then lead to physical stress in other places. Before I knew it, I was a bona fide crab, and an insecure one too.  Oy.  Not necessary.  Breath into the pose, bring awareness to it, and let tension release.

5)  Nature
Urbanization is again a trend.  We see more concrete than trees on a daily basis.  But for whatever reasons, the science is showing that spending time in nature (see here, for example) reduces stress and inflammation, improves memory and energy, and is restorative to human vitality.

For me, then, an ongoing practice to help treat my Crohn's has included:
a) Finding times to leave technology off/at home
b) and be in nature
c) a regular formal and informal practice of mindfulness
d) more work with body awareness and the interplay between the body, spirit, and mind (not that they're so distinct)
e) and to welcome rather than fill voids of silence

Crohn's is just one example; so many of us are in need of all the above for so many different reasons. Since I've been benefiting so much personally, I'm therefore proud to share that Thrive-RI will be offering it's first full-day retreat (well, 9 - 4) on March 19, 2017.  The theme of the day is Simplify-RI, but for me, it takes on another dimension. Vitality is such an important part of living the kind of life I want to live.  And I'm only here now.  Going on retreats allows me the needed space to step back, however briefly, in a place with great nutritious food, unusually talented teachers, natural beauty, and the present moment, and to take back inspiration and techniques to become more like the kind of person I hope to be.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Hyuger Response - How to Win Bigly, Trust Me!

Rabbi Jordan Bendatt-Appell was recently captured in a you-know-as-soon-as-you-see-it-it's-absolutely-iconic photograph protesting on behalf of immigrants and refugees, son on his shoulders, alongside a Muslim father-son duo engaged in the same.  As it turns out, they went on to engage in conversation, leading to a Sabbath meal together.  Enough said.

As it so happens, I've had the privilege to learn and study with this sweet, insightful Rabbi as a member of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Clergy Cohort.  On retreat, he offer valuable guidance for meditation practice, dispensing piercingly deep teachings with a light touch.  I offer two of them as an introduction to this piece:

1)  He introduced us to a Zen practice.  On the in-breath, one asks the question, "What is this?"; on the out-breath, "I don't know."  Designed to foster a lived awareness of habitualized narrative, it helps to reinforce the newness of each situation, freeing the practitioner to release habit and narrative-attachment, allowing for a greater freedom of response (my interpretation).  Given that, it was all the more stark and profound to see him holding a placard that read, "[w]e've seen this before. Never again."  We, of all people, know in our gut what it means to not be accepted as refugees due to suspicion; we, as spiritual practictioners, can make choices to look at each moment anew, but not naively.  There's a reason we're so deeply impacted by historic trauma and so aware of similar modern manifestation.

2)  Bilaam.  He famously praises the Israelite encampment, "How goodly are your tents, O jacob, your dwellings, O Israel," in a poetic flourish now recited by Jews everywhere as they enter the Synagogue.  Rabbi Bendatt-Apell noted, though, that if Bilaam were walking in the camp, he might have had a different view.  What would he have heard?  No doubt, a fair amount of argument, bickering, in other words, daily life.  What would he have seen?  Perhaps it wouldn't have been pure poetic goodness.  But from his perspective, perched on a mountain, unknown to the Israelites, at a physical and even narrative distance, he has a truly perspicacious view. This is the teaching I've been sitting with recently, and the consciousness that informs this essay.

Look.  For the last number of years, I've thought of myself as an idiosyncratic conservative voter, supported mainly Republican candidates, and have a fairly fierce libertarian tendency, for whatever that's worth.  I was a political science major at Upenn, with a concentration in U.S. politics, and wrote an honors thesis on the decline in civic engagement . . . I was upset by the federal overreach and creep of the last administration (in my opinion), and am absolutely alarmed and horrified by the incompetence, lack of knowledge, disrespect for norms of governance, government by fear, and trampling of civil rights (basically everything save the Supreme Court pick) about the current one.  I've watched citizens of many political persuasion engage in historic and inspiring protest, a large-scale re-engagement in democratic process, and have joined in said protests on several occasions. Still, I'm haunted by the fact that I don't feel as though I'm doing enough, and more haunted by the fact that I think we're all collectively playing the short-game.  Someone's got to think about now, make sure our government remains a representative democracy, protect civil liberties (I joined the ACLU).  But someone's go to think about the systemic problems that got us here in the first place.  In a certain sense, we're only addressing the immediate problems.  I'm going to try and play my best Bilaam (something I never thought I'd say!) and take a big step back.

Q: Why did we get here? How did we get here?  What caused this?
A:  First and foremost, because Donald Trump won the Republican primary. 

Everyone's focusing on how Trump beat Clinton (FBI, forgotten midwestern factory workers, Hilbilly Elegy, she's a woman, scandal-ridden, toxic, E-mails, pay for play, the kitchen sink), but that's absolutely the wrong issue to focus on; if Trump doesn't win the primary, he doesn't go on to beat Clinton.  And Trump didn't win over anywhere near the majority of individual Republican voters, just a plurality.  

Q:  How did Trump win the primary without support from a majority of voters?
A:  A mix of surprising support, a divided field, and playing the media for fools.

Let's look at two of the reasons that Trump won the primary, the media and the large, divided field of candidates.  The media kept covering trump because it was good for ratings and profit-margins.  He, using the any news is good news theory, said outrageous things about candidates and their families, and entire groups of people (women, Muslims, Mexicans, Jews (by innuendo), etc.), gaining more coverage and a bad-ass reputation that played well for him.  So many criticized the media and their role in this fiasco.  And some of them even apologized for an outrage that led to backlash that led to this. Oy!  Look, the media is driven by ratings and profits, so encouraging them to be more altruistic than that is doomed to fail (or at least unlikely to succeed).  Despite their collective confession and introspection, they will continue to "sin" so long as the system is still driven by ratings and profit.  

There was a desperate end of the game pull the goalie, half-court press, hail mary, pinch-hit the injured slugger attempt at encouraging Republicans to drop out, consolidate, play Risk and formal funky alliances. Ted Cruz and John Kasich met to consider what silly strategy might land them the top play on Sportscenter in the morning.  But encouraging Politicians not to be interested in their own election and to be more altruistic than that is doomed to fail (or at least unlikely to succeed).  As the famed Douglas Arnold noted, politicians behave based on their prospects for election; that's how the system works.  

We're going to keep going down this rabbit-hole until we come up with a long-term fix at the primary level.  Americans of both parties are patriotic and fundamentally good people.  We deserve a system that produces candidates (from any party) that represent the quality of the character of the people. And there's an easy answer (hat tip to Bennett Bergman, a local attorney, for advocating for it for years).

In 1871, William Robert Wares, an architect, trained in looking at fundamental underlying structure, suggested a system of voting when there are more than two candidates known as Instant Runoff Voting (hereinafter "IRV").   I've included flow-charts above for ease of understanding, but the idea is simple.  You rank your candidate preferences, in order (mandatory in some versions, optional in others).  For a Republican Example, Marco Rubio-1, John Kasich-2, Jed Bush-3.  If any single candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, great.  They're the winner, just as in our current system. But if not, as happened in most Republican states, you eliminate the last candidate, and credit their second place votes to the appropriate candidate.  You keep eliminating and crediting votes until someone has more than 50%.  

This system has several advantages to the current one (the main negative being its perceived complexity in a Twitter world, but hey, our elections are already convoluted, just in ways we're accustomed to accepting).  First and foremost, the candidate who wins is someone who's broadly appealing (at least as a top choice) to the majority, rather than winning a slight plurality (with the potential strong objection of the majority).  In that sense, it better represents the will of the people. The will of the people is just understood to be more nuanced.  Second, it better reflects reality.  Most people don't have just one preference in a crowded field, but in fact, they have a list of ordered preferences.  Third, it changes the entire incentive system.  In a crowded field, a candidate will need the second and potentially third place votes of other candidates to win.  So there's no incentive to trash talk, campaign negatively, etc.  For example, Donald Trump would have been less likely to insult Ted Cruz's wife and win in such a system, because he would've needed the second place votes of Cruz voters.  Etc.

At its best, it would change the tenor of the whole debate, refocusing politics on issues rather than ad hominem attacks.  At the very least, it gets around our current systemic problems. 

The Media - Donald Trump would have had a big disincentive to attack, and if we know anything about trump, it's that relying on his own sense of self-regulation is about the dumbest idea anyone could ever possibly propose.  Further, if a candidate did proceed to engage in wild activities that garnered media attention, it would be polarizing.  Some, no doubt, would love it, just like they love the WWE (fodder for a future post). Nastiness, rudeness, and boarishness are horrifying to many and appealing to many.  But the coverage would gain as many enemies as supporters, and enemies matter in an IRV world. Importantly, this solution does not rely on the media's altruism to ignore their own ratings.  It assumes it, actually.

The Large Divided Field - This solution doesn't rely on a variety of similar candidates to drop out or act against their own self-interest.  Rather, it assumes that many candidates will run, out of self-interest, and devises a system that balances that all out to insure a strong minority candidate hated by many others can't surprisingly come out of a crowded field.  

In a world where social media has dropped the floor in terms of what it takes (asset-wise) to run a campaign, primaries will grow to see a wider variety of candidates and larger fields.  We're just seeing the beginning of this trend.  Moreover, alternative media outlets will continue to pinch traditional media in the pocket, making ratings and profit ever more important (consciously or not) for self-preservation.  In other words, this wasn't a one-time thing.  I also like to think it's what the founders might have devised.  Like the regulation of faction through government diversification. The separation of powers.  This is a modern American argument that hearkens to our finest wisdom; don't rely on humans to be angels. Devise systems that regulate behavior assuming they're not, and that's actually how you realistically create heaven on Earth.  It's going to get worse, trust me. I'm writing now, with as much passion and candor as I can, as a patriotic act.  And I'm not going to stop. 

My goals are twofold:
1) Convince local politicians and activists to institute this at the local level.  Little Rhody, let's lead the way, not just short-term, but long term, in fixing the system.  

2)  Start a robust national movement.  Now's the time.  

As per Naomi Baine's suggestion, we're going to have a Run for Runoff Voting, and engage in a patriotic campaign to fix the system.  We're better than this.  We deserve better leaders. This is an important part of the solution. God bless America, please. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Suggestion for Losing the Rat Race: Casual Conversation

Image result for rat maze cheese

"So, how's the shul?  When do you think you'll be ready for the next step in your career?  How many years have you been there now?"

For those who know me, I've done a lot of teaching about cheese over the past year, related to my kashrut supervision, but I want to write about a different wedge of cheese today, the prize at the end of the rat-race.

Over the summer, I had the chance to attend several rabbinic gatherings and conventions, where important communal and spiritual matters were indeed discussed.  But I wanted to draw attention to the more casual conversation.  At one convention, I was asked some permutation of the lead question by some half a dozen well-intentioned colleagues, and that was just on the first day.  As soon as I heard the question, I was bothered, but had to think about why. 

The thoughts came quickly.  "What does the next step mean?  Surely, it means a more prominent or larger synagogue, or one with a larger budget, and presumably a larger salary, perhaps?  But I'm happy where I am . . . I've established meaningful relationships.  My wife and I are as happy as we've ever been.  I have a constructive and loving relationship with my community, " I thought to myself.  And then, the thoughts got broader, and rebellious, and defiant; "Religious service isn't supposed to about salary, or fame, or prominence.  It's about people, and the Divine, and meaning, and community," I thought to myself. 

Upon further reflection, I don't think that those colleagues (many of whom are my friends) who asked the question intended anything sinister by it; I'm sure I ask similarly toned questions on more than an occasional basis too. They, my colleagues, devote their lives to serving community.  And if money were their aim, there are many more efficient means of acquisition than the rabbinate, generally speaking (It's important to note that I do feel Rabbis are adequately compensated, generally, and this is not a complaint or even a discussion about that topic).  So why the question?  My hypothesis is that our patterns of casual conversation have been shaped by our society's prevailing rat-race mentality, and that the modes of conversation subtly shape us in return.  

Rats race through a maze, perhaps endlessly, perhaps for cheese, and so humans race through the busy maze placed in front of them, seeking our "cheese."  Money, fame, validation, attention - different flavors, but a similar singularity of purpose.  Whatever the aim, the problem, just to spell it out clearly, is at least threefold: a)  Often, the aim at the end of our rat-race isn't, in fact, the single principle we'd choose to be controlling our lives if we were in control  b) Because we're in an endless race, and can never get enough of the "fix," we're never fully satisfied, or happy, or present, and always at a baseline of partially anxious and planning for the next-stage.  To my mind, this is the meaning and great wisdom behind R' Eliezer Hakappar's aphorism that "jealously, lust, and the pursuit of honor remove a person from the world" (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4); they're all consuming, never satisfied, and prevent appreciation of any station. c) There's a finite resource at the end of the race, and we're in competition with others to make sure there's cheese left over for us. A modified zero-sum game.  

It's certainly not just a feature of rabbinic conversation.  How often is improving the country conflated with a higher GDP?  How often do we make important life decisions with an over-emphasis on the economic impact?  Is the spiritual or interpersonal impact an equal or more primary component of our decision-making process?  Perhaps, economics are more concretized.  But perhaps, just perhaps, it's because money is the most common wedge of "cheese" at the end of our maze.  

In the fall of 2015, I was at a wedding, and didn't know many people at our table (the newlyweds were friends of my wife from graduate school).  Though our table consisted of people and couples in similar life situations, few knew each other.  It occurred to me that the baseline mode of casual conversation in this setting was to inquire about career.  "What do you do?  I'm an engineer.  I'm a graduate student.  I'm in between jobs.  Etc."  But is career the only or  main salient feature of life?  It can be, but need it be?  So I decided to ask a different question, partially because I had already been outed as a Rabbi by the standard question, and because people seem to give clergy license to veer from the standard script.

I asked a different question; "Where are you in life?  How is your life, at the current moment?"  "How do you want me to answer?", asked one engaged respondent.  "However you like."  Now, the experiment was fun, but I also think it worked.  Table discussion shifted from dry description of career progress to more interesting conversation about personal journeys, paths, doubts, and hopes. 

Recalling that experience, I wonder aloud how we can re-frame casual conversation markers as Elul sets in. What questions can we ask that don't double as walls of the rat-race maze?  What are our most preferred sources of meaning?  Which ones won't leave us constantly chasing the future, but will aide our lived experience of the present moment?    

Try asking a different question and see how it goes!  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On Coffee Shop Sermon Writing

Image result for seven stars providence

This is a inner-reflection of what happens when you try to write a sermon after consuming a latte at Seven Stars with too much caffeine.  Instead of a sermon, you get a poem, and a prayer.  You never know what life will bring.  

Veins feel like they're bursting . . . Self!  Keep it together.
So excited to be so insane.  I feel like I'm spinning out of control. 
And I love it! But wait, I'm usually a control freak.  Should I be concerned?

An entire sabbatical to write and I struggled to formulate a solitary thought.
Now, would it were that time would freeze
And an infinite string of letters, words, passions cloaked in thoughts would come racing forth.
With the fury of A large breaking wave but the volume and speed of floodwater rushing through the constricted opening of a broken dam.

Inspired.  The thoughts are rushing so quickly that the speed multiplies itself and adds excitement.  
Not enough speaking slots.  When will I write this all?  Who cares?! 
This feeling carries all the exhilaration of a an upside-down roller coaster and a ride that spins but without the nausea.

Mindful moments and slowing down.  Yes.  But now the speed and excitement of passion, passing through my mind like a race car, with a whoosh of air, now another, in this moment and the next.  
Can barely make it out.  What is it?  
Huh. There's this beauty I see in noticing quickly, even deeply, but not being able to think. 

Like words of prayer that suddenly rush out.  Coming from deep within and hurrying to escape the pink prison bars while the jailbreak hasn't yet been stopped by the sponge-like prison guard who mistakes the innocence for insanity.  May the drug-induced thoughts of this wild soul find their way onto a page and into the hearts of my dear congregation. 

Postscript - I can't help but feel that the main issue to address, in so many communities, and I speak personally too, is the difficulty involved in being in touch with our inner lives.  It's so foundational for our religious lives, for our relationships, for ourselves.  That's why I've been focusing so heavily on mindfulness and chasidut at my shul and in my personal religious practice.  In the spirit of relevance, that's what I'll be blogging about this year.  Sometimes I'll be sharing my own insides; sometime's I'll write about it all.   

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Jewish Yoga - Real or Fake?

"And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in his salvation.  All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like you . . ." (Psalm 35:9-10)

"[M]y heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God" (Psalm 84:3)

Note:  This isn't an academic treatment of the subject, or anything of the sort.  Rather, I'm sharing brief ongoing personal reflections about a subject that I'm in the process of re-thinking and re-working.  I hope others benefit from hearing my (admittedly incomplete) thoughts.

"I love Judaism, and I love yoga, but Jewish yoga ruins it for me.  They're both great for what they are, but mixing them is inauthentic and waters them both down."  Recently, I was speaking to a friend and colleague about the rapid growth of "Jewish yoga," and asked him what he thought; these were the comments he offered.  To an extent, I used to and still do share his initial reaction.  Authenticity is hard to define, but I didn't really "get" the idea of yoga in a Jewish context at all.

As an Ashkenazic Jew with both limited flexibility and body awareness, I've dabbled in yoga before. I was introduced to yoga as a high school student as a technique for stress reduction in a physical education mini-unit, and have very rarely but occasionally taken classes ever since.  Every time I've done it, I've thoroughly enjoyed the work, the challenge, and and the release that come from the various poses and states of mind, but have never made the commitment to follow it through in a sustained way.  I was vaguely aware that yoga, at its root, was and is a contemplative practice rooted in Hinduism, but truly only thought of it in psychological and physical terms.  Sure, there was the Om chant at the end of most commercial yoga classes, but I assumed no one really knew or cared about what they were saying.  They were just mimicking the instructor; following the "cool kids."  Yoga provided increased strength and flexibility. Yoga also provided peace of mind and inner calm, much like meditation, that was incredibly beneficial.  That's more or less the way I thought of it.

Recently, though, through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I was reintroduced to yoga, specifically as a necessary part of a healthy spiritual practice.  Nice - sure.  A Jewish requirement - harder to swallow that.  How could a spiritual practice from India be the necessary basis for a serious Jewish spiritual discipline?  I'm not opposed to synchretic (of or related to the attempted merging of different religions, cultures, etc.) practice per se.  Still, it's a far cry from allowing for synchretic practice to considering it essential or mandatory.

As time has gone on, though, I've begun to sympathize with and even promote the position, and would like to briefly share why.  Many versions of Judaism used to rest on a somewhat fixed bifurcation between body and soul.  As many modern Jewish philosophers, theologians, scholars, and Rabbis have noted, it's now preferable (for a variety of reasons well beyond the scope of this entry) and common to think of this more along the lines of a continuum (as many kabbalists always did) than a duality.  Soul and body represent different manifestations of physical and spiritual reality, intertwined and overlapped.  So too, it used to be common, in a medical or scientific context, to think of hard distinctions and bifurcations between the body and the mind.  Now, however, neuroscience has shed much light on an integrated and continuous feedback loop.  Thoughts, emotions, moods, external stimuli (sound, the weather, lighting, anything really) and physical sensations all interact as part of a complex and dynamic process.  Hunger can promote stress and anxiety; a smile can lift spirits and dull pain.  Full awareneess (call it "da'at" in a Jewish context) and spiritual self-awareness in particular have to incorporate the intellect, the emotional, and the physical.

I'll use a mundane every-day example to clarify my point.  This morning, I was anxious about the slightly over-committed day to come.  Of course, the anxiety wasn't just in my mind.  At some point during the morning prayers, it dawned on me that I was carrying tension related to the stress in my shoulders.  By consciously and intentionally releasing the physical tension, the anxiety quickly faded, and a spirit of background happiness swept in to replace the worry.  Just then, I read aloud the words from the psalm, עבדו את ה' בשמחה, "[W]orship the Lord with joy," that I happened to be up to, and began to smile a bit at the tremendous coincidence of timing.  The inner Chasid inside of me was proud.

Obviously, it doesn't have to be Yoga, and it doesn't have to be Jewish Yoga.  But an integrated modern spiritual practice absolutely requires a body practice.  Modern science has shown us something that the psalmists always knew to be true, that true spiritual service is physical and embodied too, and something vital is missing if it's not.  Yoga happens to be the most highly developed and popular spiritual body-practice in the world today.  Placing it in a Jewish context is indeed highly synchretic.  It can also be highly integrated and natural.  If you view your Jewish practice as integrated part of your life and well-being and not a segmented partial identification, and if you want your spiritual practice to be whole, than a spiritual body practice (not just exercise!) is indeed imperative.  Yoga's tried and true, and certainly helps with the clasically Jewish goal of reaching a state of "da'at", awareness.

I'm sure I'll have more to share as time progresses, but wanted to offer these preliminary thoughts.  In the interim, anyone local (or who is willing to travel) is invited and encouraged to try out Yoga in a Jewish spiritual context with Thrive and the talented Liz Maynard.  See here for more information about Exploring Authenticity, a Purim related Adar Yoga experiment.  משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה - When Adar arrives, we increase our joy!            

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Response to Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Recently, Rabbi Mordechai Willig penned a highly controversial piece entitled Trampled Laws (  Disclaimer - I'm a relatively recent musmach of RIETS (2011) and have learned tremendous amounts from Rabbi Willig during my brief tenure in the rabbinate.  As an intern at the Beth Din of America, I witnessed Rabbi Willig serving in an active judicial role as Sgan Av Beit Din (something akin to Associate Justice second to the Chief Justice).  His scholarship, social awareness, common sense, and ability to actively, sensitively, and effectively apply Jewish law in constructive ways clearly designed to be comfortable to the recipients of his instruction were (and I'm sure still are) an admirable combination.  While studying in RIETS,  I had the absolute pleasure and merit of attending classes given by Rabbi Willig, where the breadth of his knowledge, clarity of presentation, involvement of students, and intellectual honesty in interpretation and application were hallmarks.  

Because these are the qualities I personally experienced and admire, I feel the need now to politely pen a response to this most recent essay, which fails to measure up to the excellent analysis I've come to expect.  To be quite clear, I respect Rabbi Willig immensely, do not claim to approach his level of halachic expertise, and am floored both by the quality and quantity of his dedication to the Jewish people.  So far as I've experienced, he's always welcomed dissent and counterargument in the hopes of helping to sharpen the truth.  In that spirit, I'd like humbly to respond in part:

At the crux of his argument, Rav Willig suggests a reinterpretation of our current approach to women's Torah study.  Though the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, Mishneh Torah, and other classic sources all spoke negatively of teaching one's daughters Torah, particularly the intricacies of oral law, Rav Willig correctly notes how leading figures such as the Chofetz Chaim boldly asserted that this was not a categorical prohibition per se but rather timely advice as to the best path given then-extant social realities:

Those gedolim, guided by their yiras Shomayim as well as an absolute mastery of kol haTorah kulah, understood that in light of the weakened state of the mesorah from one generation to another in the twentieth century (ibid), talmud Torah for women was a necessity to, "implant pure faith in their hearts" (Rav Zalman Sorotzkin in Moznayim L'mishpat siman 42, etc.), and as such was entirely consistent with Chazal's mandate to provide the most productive chinuch for women. 

Rav Willig suggests a re-examination of those rulings given the great changes of modernity.  Truthfully, this first assertion is absolutely correct, and characteristic of the benefit of Rav Willig's general style of analysis.  Like his predecessors before him who reinterpreted the dicta of the Talmud in radically changed social circumstances, Rav Willig resists the temptation to pidgeon-hole halachic application, always seeking to re-examine and accurately apply rulings to modern circumstances.  In a world bereft of a Sanhedrin and centralized mechanisms for Jewish legislative correction, reapplication of halachic principles to changed circumstances is absolutely essential to the survival of a meaningful Jewish law system.  As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt''l was wont to explain, the art of pesikah, understanding a particular situation and applying the law accurately to that situation, is an essential component of rabbanus.

Times are entirely different.  The worldwide movement for women's suffrage was just gaining steam toward the end of the Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan's lifetime, and women had not substantially entered the workplace, institutions of higher education, or any of society's leadership structures.  Gender roles were largely bifurcated and fixed.  

Rabbi Willig asserts that, because of the rise of "feminism" and "egalitarianism" within even Orthodox circles, past approaches need to be peeled back, with a more restrictive role for women:

However, in the words of a "pioneer of the religious feminist wave" cited in the aforementioned article, "What is happening today is a direct continuation of the beginning of Talmud studies for religious women in the 1980's." This candid admission must, for the genuinely Orthodox, call into question the wisdom of these studies. Although there are ample reliable sources that encourage individual women who have proper yiras Shomayim and whose motives are consistent with our mesorah to further their Torah study[1], the inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated. While the gedolim of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah, an egalitarian attitude has colored some women's study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim.    

I'd like to address these claims from both pragmatic and philosophical perspectives.  "Feminism," a movement which many even in modern Orthodox circles decry and a word many use pejoratively, is not in fact bad or anathema to Torah.  While there are many different strata and stripes of feminism, it is, at its root, a movement that has had profound and positive effects for (approximately) half of the world's population.  Feminism is about social, political, and economic equality for women.  The cause has manifested in successful advocacy for the right to women's suffrage, the right to work, the right to hold public office, the right to own property, maternity leave, laws against sexual slavery, child rape, spousal abuse, and a variety of other advancements.  

Many of us see feminism primarily as a kiyum (fulfillment) of the divine affirmation that we are created in the image of God.  These societal advancements can be seen (and are!) in religious terms as a fulfillment of the respect owed to infinitely valuable souls gifted to us for a short time by the blessed Creator, and representative of the development of societies' ethical sensitivities, something to be celebrated.  Efforts in this regard are part and parcel of the rabbinic notion of tikun haolam, the perfection of the world legislated through reforms designed to alleviate poverty and oppression throughout the Mishna and rabbinic literature.  More grandly, they represent the very essence of our partnership with Hashem in the advancing the work of creation and redemption.  

Moreover, we have a hard time accepting the consistency and cogency behind the arguments that posit feminism and egalitarianism as categorically negative or even evil.  After all, if you support women being politicians, doctors, lawyers, owning property, in a word, being fully autonomous beings and not mere subordinates, then how can people fairly assert that feminism is simply bad, case closed.  Run the thought experiment and take away the reforms of the feminist movement, and fairly tell me or anyone else that our wives or daughters would be better off (economically, spiritually, emotionally) under that regime.

Now, that's not to say that feminism and other largely positive developments haven't brought along a host of complicated challenges.  I trust that Rabbi Willig and others, out of a deep bona fide concern for mesorah, fear that seeming innovations and a new spirit threaten to upend that which we cherish.  Rabbi Willig and others (seemingly the majority of recent essays on the Cross Currents blog - have taken to criticizing trends of "postmodernism."

Now, I'm certainly not an expert on current postmodern trends, but do know well that postmodernism presents at least two major challenges (opportunities?) to the faith community.  First, postmodernism is characterized by a profound skepticism about truth, valuing instead narratives and perspectives.  This skepticism extends all the more so to claims of dogmatic or absolute truth, and results in a deep mistrust of organized religion and traditional frameworks.  While this is certainly a challenge to the received wisdom of our cherished tradition, the truth is there are many positives to the current thought trend, should we choose to take advantage of it.  a) "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim chayim - these opinions and those are all the words of the living God."  Why a living God?  Our earthly existence, unlike that of the unified Creator, is an existence of multiplicity and difference.  We're entirely accustomed to difference leading to discord; Judaism teaches that fundamentally, difference too is divine, not discordant.  God "lives" through our good faith passionate disagreements, and that these differing perspectives can all represent truth.  b)  Though critiqued, the Rambam's negative theology, whereby not only anthropomorphic descriptions of God but even anthropopathic descriptions of God were proscribed serves as a model.  Ultimately, if God is "kadosh," meaning utterly distinguished, there's nothing we can fairly say.  This reverence and humility can perhaps be seen as embodied in the practice of our treatment of sheimos, divine names.  We refuse to pronounce, under any circumstances, the Shem Havayah, the revered Tetragramaton, representing God's total otherness.  c)  Humility - all of this skepticism can lead to a profound humility about what we know and the development of personal humility of character.  Moshe Rabbeinu is singled out, according to the Torah, specifically because of his profound and unique humility, and it's a character trait that the Rambam suggested we ought to develop in excess; all of the others require balance and the golden mean.  In an era of narcissism gone wild and surreal selfie-style self-promotion (see the Donald Trump candidacy merely as the current  culmination of the disturbing trend), humility is the character trait the hour demands.

Secondly, postmodernism has been characterized by fluid less-rigid roles and structures.  This isn't only a product of postmodernism, but also of a more flexible economy whereby increasing numbers of people work remotely, from homes, coffee shops, or anywhere else, and automation and technological development has spurred an increase in the kinds and varieties of work that people do.  The fluidity of modern society results in more flexible family structures whereby roles are not normative but rather functional on individual levels.  It's not just that we have two-parent working families.  A dad might choose to stay at home or work part-time, if his job and temperament allow it, particularly if mom has a higher-paying or more reliable job with a large corporation.  Increasingly, people are happy to embrace the variety of choices present in a largely non-biased society, and do whatever works best for them.  

The benefits are obvious - rather than have ill-fitting roles foisted upon individuals because of their gender or other identity delineaters, we're able to expand the potential for human and family development by allowing individuals and families to create structures most suited to help them flourish.  Now, it's not all rosy.  A recent article in the New York Times highlighted that millenials aren't nearly as willing to shed traditional roles as they think they will be once they have families and children.  Also, the lack of predictability and ill-defined roles creates a new organizational challenge of role definition, and overcoming the associated chaos, stress, and lack of predictability.  Still, society has weighed in, and the market of humanity has, across cultures, chosen more fluid roles.  

It's this area which ostensibly poses the most overt challenge for traditional Judaism, which in  large part rests on the breakdown of gender roles as a rationale for the increased number of male religious requirements, particularly the time-bound ones.  This poses challenges not just for women, but for men as well.  For example, a man who chooses to stay at home and care for the children may have a harder time being able  to fulfill his requirement to attend the daily minyan or fulfill other time bound positive precepts.  Recently, a congregant suggested to me that the legal mechanisms for dealing with these new realities already exist in the halachic system, notions such as osek min hamitzvah patur min hamitzvah, someone who is engaged in a commandment is exempt from others, and the like, and that we merely need leadership and good faith reverent application of the laws on the books.  Perhaps.  A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of what I'd like to discuss in this piece.  

Most importantly, just as the sages of the early twentieth century adapted to a situation whereby women's roles were changing, Rabbi Willig's absolutely correct that postmodern trends require reevaluation of womens' roles.  However, the nature of that reevaluation must be based on current social realities, so as to insure the survival of the mesorah  we all value so deeply and its wise application to modern times.  Of course, the changes can't themselves be in violation of the tradition, as this would prima facie represent a destruction, not preservation of the tradition.  This will mean that, for example, where halacha permits, we will need to see more fluidity, based on particular individual needs and circumstances, in the nature of gender roles in our community.  A return to roles of the 19th century is, in this respect, unhelpful in addressing the current reality. Since many mainstream authorities permit, in theory, the notion that women can have a heter hora'ah, permission to rule on legal questions, if qualified, opportunities for training and leadership will become normative and ought to be afforded.  Unlike some others who support women's "ordination", I don't believe it's a radical change at all, or that members of a traditional faith community should be engaged in radical change altogether, but rather a modern application of traditional and absolutely halachic norms.  This is just one example, though, of a wider trend of more fluid roles.  For another example, note the number of "Rebbitzens" who, due to full time workloads and a variety of diverse responsibilities, eschew the traditional role of being a semi-official synagogue staff members.               

To close, a word on methodology of argumentation.  Lately, many critical pieces employ logical fallacies in the effort to persuade (not intentionally, but in their effort at good faith persuasion), particularly the straw-man fallacy and the fallacy of poisoning the well.  Briefly, the straw-man is a fallacy whereby a caricatured and easily combustible version of the opponent's argument is posited for easy burning; really good argumentation (like the highly complex and brilliant argumentation comprising the Talmud) seeks to assert the strongest version of an opponent's claims, note the weaknesses of one's own arguments, and arrive at a modified but stronger end point.  For an example of this, there is the trend of calling Orthodox believing religiously pious  Rabbis and lay individuals alike "neoconservative."  They're not (go to their synagogues and they're distinctly Orthodox), and though their might be some overlap, the social realities suggest the comparison is not particularly accurate or useful, broadly speaking.  Large communities of halachically observant Jews who favor legally permissible women's ordination (or certainly arguably legal), for example, are legally and socially observant in ways that neither Orthodox or Conservative congregations were during much of the 20th century.   Along with this, the notion and intimation that feminists are seeking to uproot religious tradition and that the line from feminism to heresy can easily be drawn posits and unfair picture of religiously passionate and pious women. 

Poisoning the well is a technique whereby a host of presumed negative information (usually not sufficiently nuanced either) is introduced at the outset to bias readers against a person or group preemptively.  From a religious perspective, this also cuts against the notion that we ought to try and judge each other favorably, perhaps especially when we disagree.  Many articles contain a host of links, trying to inflame by citing all of the most controversial innovations, usually out of context, in an effort to delegitimitize or frame speakers before a reader has had an opportunity to frame opinions.  Ultimately, this distracts from the merits of  a particular argument, and causes unnecessary animosity.

Lastly, a plea.  Pious Jews seeking new roles for women are merely trying to take part in the natural evolution of tradition, but a tradition it remains to them as well.  They're seeking to preserve it within legally acceptable parameters, not as a compromise but ideally, and as part of traditionally religious imperatives in authentic if new ways.  Moreover, the great changes of modern times call for traditionally rooted solutions and evolutions to preserve our great faith.  Though the times present challenges, they also present opportunities.  It's my hope that the sages and great scholars of this generation, like Rabbi Willig, will address the challenges in constructive ways that make sense for our generation.  Like predecessors before, this will require courage and creativity, rooted in yiras shamayim and scholarship.  People aren't seeking to trample laws, but to observe them and preserve them more broadly.  This should be celebrated and assisted, not fought.    

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Prayer Petition to my Congregation

Image result for ecstatic chasidic tefilla

Today, I sent this letter to my wonderful congregation to inspire increased attendance while many of the regulars are away during the summer months.  I share it publicly knowing that we're not alone, and noting that the ideas are broader than our local community.

Dear Congregants,

This past Saturday night and Sunday, we mourned together on Tisha B'Av lamenting the absurd cruelties of Jewish history but primarily mourning for the destruction of our holy Temples in Jerusalem and everything else (religiously, politically, socially) that those absolute destructions entailed.  Should a sincere mourning have a lasting effect?  If so, what should it be?

The truth is, I'm writing primarily because of the situation out community finds itself in.  Though we have about 80 men in our growing congregation (maybe more, maybe less), I haven't taken the time to count precisely, we now have trouble each day acquiring the minimal prayer quorum of ten men. Yesterday morning, I was number six (6); today, I was number ten (10).  This past Friday night, we were never close, despite a robust turnout on Shabbat morning, Shabbat afternoon, and Tisha B'Av itself.  Granted, all of this is partly due to the fact that it is summer, where a number of our members (and sometimes our Rabbi) travel and take extended vacations.

This situation will only be exacerbated in the coming days, as approximately seven (7) of our regular ten (10) will be traveling for an extended period of time; I'll also be taking the rest of my vacation. As leadership, we are now inclined to temporarily suspend our daily prayer services, morning and evening, save Shabbat and possibly weekends.  At this time, I turn to you, the congregation, with a message that I hope will facilitate discussion but also inspire attendance, regardless of what we choose to do over the coming weeks.

Why Ten?

As Rosie the Riveter said, "[w]e can do it!"  We is the operative word in that sentence.  We call ourselves a "congregation" in English, or "kehillah" in Hebrew. Rather than a mere collection of individuals, we are prima facia something larger than that, and share the responsibilities and privileges of our awesome and holy venture together as a joint entity.

In addressing the question of quorum, Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook zt''l explained as follows. There's national service of God and individual service, and both are vital to the mission of Israel; individual service provides for an outlet for the proper service of each soul in a local context, whereas national service sets an example to the nations of the world in furtherance of our people's historic mission. Exile and the destruction of the Temples were a sensible Divine response to the particular private moral failings of individuals on a massive scale.  Private ethical behavior was weakened supplanted by perfunctory national religious ritual. The priorities were out of balance and misplaced, with an entire pole utterly neglected. It should be noted that this stinging message is delivered painfully by the prophet Isaiah:

10 Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. 11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. 12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. 14Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. 15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. {S} 18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken. {P}

In essence, God was entirely sick of the vain "religious" service of a nation of corrupt sinners.  As a result, we were placed into a situation of exile, whereby there was no more nation with a clear center, but individuals dispersed on their own. Enter the mussar movement, a focus on religious study, and personal religiosity and spirituality as the primary avenues of Jewish expression.  In exile, we would more properly work to refine our private ethical character devoid of forums for nationalized public worship.  Eventually, when this imbalance was properly corrected for, the national urge would again rise, which Rav Kook believed corresponded to the rise of the settlement of the land of Israel he was experiencing.  Even during our exile, though, rabbinic reminders would signal our national historic mission.  With prayer as a replacement of sacrifice after the destruction of the Second Temple, the requirement of a quorum (derived for the word עדה, community, used in relation to the ten spies, an interesting subject in its own right) served to remind us that our private service of God, observed most prominently during prayer, an intimate conversation with the Master of the Universe, ought still occur in the context of a quorum representative of the entire nation.  Moreover, all of the blessings of the amidah are distinctly plural.  Many contain direct references to our national mission and eventual and ongoing redemption.  All of this to remind us that we're not merely individual Jews, but members of a larger holy community, proudly pursuing prophetic promises of global and historical redemption, tikun haolam.

As you're likely aware, most of our prayer services contain a reader's repetition of the amidah.  Rav Soloveitchik, zt''l, prominently asserted that talking and even Torah study during such was absolutely prohibited, and accustomed himself to stand for the entire repetition, feet together, as if he was in prayer. There is the tefillat hayachid, the prayer of the individualand the tefillat hatzibur, the communal prayer. They are equally important.

Personal Reasons to Pray

On the one hand, prayer with a quorum is a Jewish legal obligation.  Jewish men are required to pray thrice daily with a quorum, if possible, and women are required to pray the morning and afternoon services (with or without a quorum), according to Ashkenazic practice.  The Talmud rules that prayer in a synagogue with a quorum is qualitatively preferable to prayer alone.  Prayer in a synagogue even absent a quorum is preferable to prayer at home.  Experience tells us this is true.  It's a simple matter of fact that we're far more likely to pray and pray seriously if we attend the prayer service then if we try to fit it in on our own. Moreover, praying for others in the plural together, in the presence of others sharing the experience, is a holy experience of bonding and interpersonal communion that simply does not occur, spiritually, alone.

The obligation itself should be enough to encourage more frequent attendance, as we strive to pass on a tradition, legal and otherwise not of rights but of responsibilities.  I dare say we're growing weak and wimpy, finding excuses for skipping prayer, and our piety and lives suffer because of it.  We treat other rabbinic laws (rightly) with the utmost seriousness, yet simply ignore this requirement as if it were a luxury option.  As we fret about the Jewish education of the children in our community and passionately advocate for observance, we must model the behavior we proclaim to promote and observe ourselves.

Now, I know perfectly well that perfection is nearly impossible.  I know further that we're all on a path of service, at different levels of observance, seeking to find the right balance in our lives.  I'm not unaware of the stresses prayer attendance can create on family life, the hour of sleep forfeited, and the tremendous time and financial pressures placed on all of us.  All the more reason we need more prayer and prioritization in our lives, all of us, regardless of background or observance.

Prayer as Prioritization

We lead hectic lives, all of us, with too much to do, and constant interruption. Technology provides the reality of constant interruption and communication, interrupting tasks, flow, thought, and focus.  Additionally, prioritization is challenging and often not entirely within our control.  Enter prayer, more important now than ever; we've got to check in with God more than our inbox if we want to maintain meaningful religious practice.

In his commentary on the Talmud in Berachot entitled Ein Ayah, Rav Kook zt''l notes the important and distinct role of each of the three prayer services.  Morning prayers allow for a focus on the soul and spirit as we begin our physical days.  I heard from Rav Avidgor Neventzal that this is one of the reasons for the sages' famous ban on pre-prayer breakfast.  We must pray for our souls before feeding our stomachs; in other words, we must prioritize matters of the spirit in organizing our day.  I'll make a pragmatic suggestion.  Each of the 19 blessings of the amidah, particularly the requests in the middle, can be used to think about the to-do list for the upcoming day, praying and reflecting on what's to come.  I now use the shacharit amidah to reflect on whether the outcomes I hope for are in fact reach nichoach Lashem, "a fragrant odor to God," and whether my priorities are properly aligned.  This understanding is based on the fact that the reflexive Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, sometimes translated as "to judge oneself."  The root can also mean to imagine, and would them mean that we're hopefully imagining the lives we wish to lead.  Properly done, this weighing of priorities can serve as an exercise in fostering humility and hope while catalyzing our attainment of well-being.

Immersed in the work day, we can be overcome by the pursuit of wealth, forgetting ultimately why we really need it, while also losing balance with other values (family time chief among them).  Mincha, the afternoon service, interrupts, allowing us an antidote to the potential toxins of the modern workplace.  Elijah the prophet defeated the priests of Baal in the afternoon, says the Talmud.  So too, we are likely to contend with foreign forces during the workday.  While this may sound somewhat cynical, reflecting negatively on the predominant culture, it is also poignant and often true.  Our world is absolutely full of negative and foreign values (obsessive greed, selfishness, narcissism, the objectification of women, and mass dehumanization come readily to my mind) that overtly and covertly seep into our psyche.  As Edward Abbey famously noted, "[g]rowth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."  Many of us are caught up, to varying degrees, in that western rat-race of ego and wealth.

Ma'ariv, the evening service, according to Rav Kook, serves to guard against lustful and sinful behavior most commonly occurring at night.  Psychologically, I'd like to offer a suggestion.  The mental capacity for self-control has been shown to exhaust itself, resulting in poorer decisions and a lack of self-restraint following other difficult decisions.  After the rigors of the day, we need renewed encouragement to renew our fortitude for good decision making based on the values we not only profess but care about. Ma'ariv encourages us to continue to live our values and be our best selves. Importantly, it also serves as an opportunity to measure our day and reflect.  We all know that self-evaluation and feedback are critical to job performance lest we lose sight of goals and fall into rote. Our spiritual/ethical feedback should be at least as strong as our professional measurements, but I fear is entirely absent.

These insights from or based on the teachings of the Talmud as explained by Rav Kook serve as a powerful explanation for the tangible benefits that prayer can have on our lives.  Restatement, reflection, and refinement of our priorities, meditated on at important times, can truly transform how we live and change our lives for the better in revolutionary ways.

Prayer for Everyone

Recently, in response to my request for morning minyan attendance, a congregant retorted, "[s]orry, but minyan is for alter cockers, mystics, and people saying mourner's kaddish."  I'd like to take written issue.

First, I'd like to share a passage from Worship of the Heart, a collection of thoughts from Rav Soloveitchik, zt''l, where the Rav questions seriously the notion that prayer is for everyone:

"A serious problem comes to the fore . . . is it confined to the religious genius - a curious and unique type of personality who is capable of attaining this ecstatic state of mind, of rapture an unification, a personality who rejects what seems clearly, logically and tangibly to be the natural order, for the sake of tending a reality which is beyond one's grasp?  Is prayer only for the mystic?  We, in contrast to the mystic, are all physically and mentally children of this external concrete world and therefore, if this be true, cannot make the leap from the sensuous and real into the transcendent and absolute.  Hence, avodah she-ba-lev, in the Maimonidean description, is an esoteric adventure, one that is not understandable to the average person.  Saints or mystics, whom God has blessed with an over-sensitized nature, with the capacity for violent and intelligible emotions, with an exalted sense of perceptions and fantasy-they may follow the mystical way, devoting their existence to the Infinite.  But we many not be able to do so . . . Unless tefillah as a Halakhic norm can find a place within the frame of reference of normal mentality, and lend itself to realization by every human being, regardless of his spiritual limitations, its meaning to us could never more than academic and remote . . . entrusted to an esoteric group, to the select few . . . ." (Worship of the Heart, 26-7)

The Rav's answer was simple.  Chazal were well aware of this concern, and therefore designed a tripartite prayer consisting of 1) Praise 2) Requests 3) Gratitude from among a wider array of possible subjects as most related to the needs of a common person.  "These three motifs-these three rays-offer remedial and inspiring energy for everybody.  Therefore, they were singled out and spelled out in our silent prayer."  We can all recognize the grandeur of God, think about and request our needs, and express gratitude for the blessing in our lives.  To do so daily provides "energy for everybody."

Second, I'd like to focus on certain ethical aspects of the notion that minyan is for those reciting the mourner's kaddish.  In our community, there are men and women regularly desirous of reciting this exalted prayer to elevate the soul of a departed loved one.  Doing so is both an act of love and dedication to the memory of  the deceased, while at the same time an act of faith very much focused on God's presence in our "real" world.  By attending the minyan, men help insure that others will be able to carry on this most sacred tradition, engaging in a de facto act of compassion and kindness for the those trying to recite the prayer.  There is a responsibility to do this as a fulfillment of Judaism's great primary principle, "[l]ove your neighbor as yourself."   

Which brings me to the next logical point.  If we ourselves would/will desire the quorum to recite kaddish when, God forbid, the time comes, we have an ethical obligation to attend during other times as well.  It's my strong feeling that it's ethically wrong to be willing to receive a donated organ but not willing to give one.  It violates basic ethical norms of fairness, Hillel's golden rule, and Kant's categorical imperative. Minyan is no different.  Basic fairness demands that those who would utilize in the hour of need must facilitate the same for others during their hour.               


Now, there are several frequent objections to Jewish prayer I have not substantively addressed in these musings.  You may find yourself saying, "[o]ur prayer experience does not map the lofty goals and aspirations described by sages ancient and modern quoted in this and other writings on the subject; our prayers are rote, rushed, full of talking, or otherwise not spiritually conducive in some manner or another." To that claim, I am quite sympathetic, and share it in large measure, but note that the abandonment of prayer itself solves nothing and also the exaggeration of the claims a bit.  Prayer is a practice to help us always live more fully aware of God's presence; to the extent it doesn't meet that aim, we must work to refine our environment to something more conducive.  Abandoning prayer does even less to further the aim.  I as your Rabbi will support communal suggestions for more conducive prayer wholeheartedly. It is also largely private, and can be taken seriously by willing individuals regardless of external factors.

You may find yourself saying, "I don't want to read words someone in a different place and time wrote, but want to pray my own prayers."  To this, I'd note that our sages required that we be mechadeish bah davar, that each of our prayers contain new elements, and suggested the framework as a baseline framework to be added to.  Minimally sufficient restrictions and limitations (like rules for children) foster the freedom to create and innovate more fully.  Add your own prayers related to the subject matter of the different blessings, please.  It's a Jewish law requirement.

I lay these out before you as preliminary thoughts on the obligations and benefits of regular prayer attendance.  You may disagree with some or all of what I've said.  That's well and good, and I'd be thrilled if this is a starting point for a communal discussion about what prayer is or ought to be, in our personal lives and for our community.  Perhaps we will develop congregational forums for discussing prayer seriously; after all, it's a fairly central part of what goes on in a beit kenesset.

Most immediately, though, I've set up a Google document for the coming weeks designed to chart prayer attendance.  At the bottom of the page, there's on tab for shacharit and one for mincha/ma'ariv.  This serves both as a way for our congregation to see if we have the requisite numbers for a quorum for each prayer over the coming weeks (so that those saying kaddish or otherwise desirous of a minyan may plan accordingly), while also serving as a way for you to commit yourself and hold yourself to it.  Women are welcomed and encouraged to sign up, though won't count in the quorum (that's for another essay).  Frequently, modern Orthodoxy is criticized as a movement more of convenience than commitment. This is symbolized by the fact that we need to rely on others to make our minyan.  I don't believe this to be true at all, and am confident that with time, training, and re-habitualization, we can rise to the challenge לטוב לנו, to our ultimate benefit.  I know that my attendance is and will remain less than perfect, and note publicly the inherent inconsistency always present in writing these kinds of thoughts.  Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, for your serious consideration, and for signing up.


Rabbi Dolinger
חיים בעריל בן מאיר שמשון ולאה ביילה