Monday, October 24, 2011

Filling the gaps -- the essence of Midrash

A couple of quotes from Daniel Boyarin on the nature of Midrash:
The text of the Torah is gapped and dialogical, and into the gaps the reader slips, interpreting and completing the text in accordance with the codes of his or her culture. . . . Midrash is a portrayal of the reality which the rabbis perceived in the Bible through their ideologically colored eyeglasses.
What I like about these quotes (from pg. 14-15 of his seminal Intertextuality and the reading of Midrash) -- despite the fact that they're just plain wonderfully clear! -- is that it opens the way towards an understanding of Midrash that can span both the ancient product of our rabbis and today's efforts to create contemporary Midrash. It puts the text of the Torah at its center and characterizes an important key aspect of that text that has shaped the way the Jews have related to their Holy texts through the millennia -- by charging into the 'gaps' to (incredibly!) both preserve the integrity of the ancient words, while also infusing them with free and contemporary meaning.

I am grateful to have been assigned to again read these words of Boyarin. One of the great gifts of this semester of my doctoral work is that I am privileged to study with two of the greatest contemporary readers of ancient Jewish texts -- Jeffrey Rubenstein and Elliot Wolfson. I'm enjoying it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Approved! (A full cup)

I am proud to be able to say that I was approved as a Full Supervisor today in the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, the premier group for training chaplains and other spiritual caregivers. It's been a long road, but one with much great learning on it. I am excited and grateful to so many for their help, Minna first of all and, of course, also my training supervisor Greg Stoddard of Reading Hospital. Also thanks to Rabbi Mychal Springer who gave me the opportunity to work at the Jewish Theological Seminary this past summer.

Now to celebrate!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve and the Holy of Holies

I never owned a Volkswagen Bug, but nearly 30 years ago I proudly bought (and still have a copy) of the "Compleat Idiot How to Keep Your Volkwagen Alive" guide, first published in 1969 by an aerospace industry 'dropout'. With its 'groovy-looking' and clear diagrams of repair tasks, the guide seemed to promise a better and simpler life amid the technology -- like the motor vehicle -- that we depend on for all the best of what we can do, but that also threatens (think, global warming) to destroy us. It said, 'there's another way.' We can have material things that serve us, instead of us having to live a 'rat race' existence where we feel enslaved to those things and an obsessive need to consume and constantly acquire more and more. It said, "small is better."

Until recently, I had never owned an Apple computer. But I always admired them. They also carried with them this promise -- one Steve Jobs credited in part to the influence on him of the Whole Earth Catalog -- of a better way to live. A way that did not mean we always had to pursue having lots of complex gadgets. One that said that it was possible to own things that were beautiful -- beautiful with an almost Japanese aesthetic that found beauty in the small and simple.

This is part of why so many of us seem to mourn so much at hearing of the death of this man who was, in fact, not someone most of us knew at all. He stood for something much beyond his actual deeds. He stood for that 'small is better' belief and aesthetic. His very life was a beacon of hope for America and its future. He embodied the possibility that the great and terrible rent that came upon this country in the 1960s amid the Vietnam war -- the split between Counterculture and Nixon's Silent Majority, a split that has grown into the current great gap between Red and Blue states -- could be healed. Rather than being in conflict, the goals of the Counterculture and of commerce could come together. This greatest success of American companies in our time -- this Apple -- showed that one could made piles of money by bringing Counterculture values to life. In a sense, Jobs was a modern-day priest, someone who appeared almost magically to be able to enter the Holy of Holies of our time, a place that would have destroyed an ordinary human with its beautiful and terrible power. Jobs could see clearly things that were obscured for the rest of us. The music world despaired of finding a way to distribute music on the Internet that could also allow money to be made. Jobs, on the other hand, saw a way to make it simple -- just sell the songs individually for $1 (minus a penny) each. It seems almost obvious in retropect, but only this 'priest' could both see it and pull together the resources to make it happen.

Jobs' greatest inheritor is Google, another company that has found fantastic financial success while pursuing a sense of higher values -- especially its famous "don't be evil" maxim -- as well as pursuing simplicity in the user experience. It remains to be seen what the future of these two great American companies is and whether they will continue to uphold their values. But as we approach this Yom Kippur, we can bring a hope -- a prayer -- not just for individual existences to prosper in the year (and years) ahead, but also a hope for the nation and the world: a hope that we will find a way towards a small-is-better prosperity in the model that this 'priest' (or prophet) modeled for us. A prosperity that does not mean destroying our planet. A prosperity where we can be truly satisfied with what we have. A prosperity where every person has the opportunity to live out his or her dreams. A prosperity that frees us from violence, homelessness and pain. A prosperity that does not forget the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

Tzom Kal.


Of course, there are other reasons we have so much emotion at Jobs' passing. First is how young Jobs was -- only 56. It shows that no matter how blessed a person might be in many parts or their life -- including the wealth needed to afford the very best of medical care -- many years are not guaranteed to any one of us (certainly, a theme with resonance on Yom Kippur).

I also feel like I _owe_ Jobs (or at least Apple computer). Apple has _taught_us so many things that we often paid them nothing for. For example, Apple taught me that a notebook computer was something I both _needed_ and could afford. I will never forget that group project session in 1993 when I was finishing up my first masters degree. Another student pulled his Powerbook 100 (see pic above) out of his bag and pulled up the group project we were all working on -- we finished it together right there and then in that student lounge instead of each having to go home (or to a computer lab) to work on our individual sections independently. It blew my mind and I knew I had to have one. I ended up buying an early IBM Thinkpad instead, a device that helped transform how I worked and thought. IBM got my money for that purchase -- not Apple -- but I never would have spent the money if the Powerbook 100 hadn't 'taught' me what its value could be. Similarly, the iPod and the iPhone taught us -- and other music device and smartphone manufacturers -- what was possible. We have all benefited tremendously. It is certainly true, however, that Apple rarely has invented anything new. I had an mp3 player by RIO before the iPod was ever released. But it never really worked right. Apple under Jobs has known how to take complicated technology and put it all together with data and media in ways that _seem_ simple -- or at least are experienced as simple by the user. They just work. They teach us how it is done.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Choosing life . . . . . in a world of brokenness

Who is in charge of your life? God? Yourself? Others?

If you were in synagogue a few days ago on Rosh HaSahnnah, it would be understandable if you might have felt as if your only option is to submit to some predetermined fate about the course of your life. The great image of the High Holiday season -- articulated dramatically in the ונתנה תוקף/U-netaneh Tokef prayer -- is that of God high in the heavens, writing in a book that determines the course of your year to come. We sing together the words:
בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
On Rosh HaShannah it (who shall live and who shall die) it is written.

וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
And on Yom Kippur (this coming Shabbat) it is sealed.
And, yet, the prayer also gives us something to do in the 10 days between these two holidays -- a path to reduce the severity of the decree written on Rosh HaShannah:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה
מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
Teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah avert the severity of the dec
But what exactly does this "teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah" mean? I could try and help a bit by translating all the words into English -- repentance for teshuvah and charity for tzeduckah -- but that leaves us still wondering what is really meant by repentance and by charity (or, for that matter, even prayer). What, for example, are we meant to repent from? If it's from sin, what does sin mean for us?

Whenever I think of the nature of Judaism, I always think of the choice of our ancient Sages to end the Torah with the heartbreaking image of Moshe standing on the edge of the Promised Land, knowing that he will die there and never see the land of his forebears. The Sages could have instead chosen to end the Torah with the next book in the Bible -- Joshua -- and its tale of a triumphant reentry into the land punctuated by dramatic military victories carried out with God's help. But our Sages chose to end the Torah in the wilderness -- in a place of exile and brokenness. There's a powerful message in that for us -- brokenness is not just something for Moshe, it is for all of us. That is where we live. We live knowing we will die, and even that we may die in pain and disappointment. We live knowing the world is full of suffering -- even the death of children to cancer -- that we cannot hope to make sense of.

It would be easy to lose hope knowing that we live in a world that is broken, and that is unlikely to be completely fixed in our lifetimes. It would be easy to become discouraged. We could -- and sometimes do -- lose faith like the people Israel did on their 40-year journey in the wilderness.

But God calls us back with the demand that we -- even on the edge of the place of potential doom that is the sealing of the decrees on Yom Kippur -- embrace the best that it is possible for us to be as humans. To be humans who choose to acknowledge our mistakes and errors and then to repent from them. To be humans who choose to acknowledge God's greatness through acts of prayer. To be humans who choose to try to make the world around them more just -- especially for the weakest and most needy among us -- through acts of righteous giving. In effect, to be humans who choose life. . . . even amid the threat, or even nearness, of death. Even amid knowledge of the brokenness amid us and around us.

Some weeks back, I wrote here about how I was hit by a car while bicycling. I was not hurt badly and did not need to go to the hospital. Yet, I have found myself thinking about the accident often, and have been wondering why I seem to think it was such an important event for me.

I am still not sure. But I know that I keep thinking of the moment when I realized the car was going to hit me. To my surprise, it was not fear that gripped me. Instead, I was able to intentionally do the thing that I had learned would be most useful towards increasing my survivability in the face of an impact -- I relaxed. I allowed myself to roll up onto the hood of the car and then fall back down on the ground. In effect, at that moment when it seemed like I had no control over what would happen to me, I still grabbed for what agency I still had to work towards my goal -- my goal of choosing life.

As chaplains and spiritual caregivers, or just as people, we often meet people whose time left on earth appears to be short -- as if a 'car' is coming towards them -- or who have experienced much loss, including the loss of independence or of loved ones. We often struggle to find ways we can be of some comfort. I know of no magic words for those moments. But I do know it is always still possible to choose life for the moments that remain to us, to be a force for good -- for teshuvah, prayer and tzeduckah -- in the world.

May the year ahead be a happy and healthy one in which you are sealed in life -- and one in which you are able to find your own way towards choosing life for yourself.

Shannah Tova.


Above, you may have been confused by the picture of a bicycle. It is Bira single-speed cruiser bike with coaster brakes (also featured below on top of a labyrinth of all things that I found in the East River park with the Williamsburg Bridge in the distance). For me, cycling is one of the little ways I try and choose life a bit more often. I got the bike from NYU's bicycle share program and rode it down from the Village today to Bowling Green downtown (where I write this blog post courtesy of free wi-fi in the park).

NYU's bike share program is just a pilot that will hopefully soon be supplanted by the ambitious plans for a municipal share program. Based on the great success of bike share in Paris, this program hopes to revolutionize how people get around the City. In Paris, people rent the bikes from automated stations with credit cards. The rentals are meant to be short term -- just to ride to the next bicycle station where you drop it off (the rates are designed to encourage people to quickly return the bikes). I hope it really comes to be -- as planned -- by next summer!

From NYC biking