Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Prejudice and Judaism
Posted by: Rabbi James Greene, Director of Programs on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)
One of the great privileges of being a community rabbi is the questions I receive - especially from children. I write for a blog called Jewish Values Online - a website that receives questions and asks four rabbis from varying perspectives to answer in an effort to provide a wide range of opinions about Jewish life, culture, and belief. Recently, through that site a question came to me from a group of elementary school students:
"Why does G-d make so many people go through prejudice? Why did G-d let there be slaves in the USA if it already happened in Egypt? Does he care?"
Below is my answer to them. If you want to see more responses to this question, or to see my responses to additional questions, please visit JewishValuesOnline.org.
This is a truly difficult question, but I am so glad that you raised it. One of the things I love most about Judaism is our shared memory as an enslaved people. That memory of slavery is the foundation of the Jewish identity, and it is the core of Jewish practices of seeking justice.
In truth, I don’t know why God makes so many people go through prejudice, or any other injustice. I would like to believe that it isn’t God who makes those things happen, but rather things that we do to one another because we don’t understand each other. I don’t hold God accountable when things are not going well in life, and I don’t believe that God is a force that “makes” people do anything. In that same way God didn’t let slavery happen. Slavery in America was something that humans created because we forgot the cardinal rule of the Torah; that we were once slaves and are called to not oppress others.
I can say that I am proud of the rabbis who fought against slavery in America; rabbis like Rabbi David Einhorn. He was a rabbi just before the Civil War who gave a devar torah (a Shabbat talk) against slavery even though it cost him his job! I am also proud of the Jewish community’s response to modern day slavery. Through the work of incredible organizations like the American Jewish World Service, we are living up to our Biblical command and not standing idly by while others are enslaved.
People are not born to prejudice. I am saddened when I see people who are raised from their childhood to believe that all people are not created in God’s image. I do believe that children are not born wanting or needing to be prejudice. Unfortunately, people are afraid of what they perceive as different. When in fact if they looked around they would see that at one time or another we have all been different.
Our ancestors searched for God’s presence in the world. Their shared wisdom with us tells us that we should always remember the moments when we were told that we were different, or not as good, or not as important. When they left the Torah for us as our inheritance they taught us to remember and to use that memory to help us act to create a world where no one else has to feel that way. That is what it means to seek justice. That is what it means to be a Jew. The fact that you are asking this question gives me great hope that we might one day come to that place. Until then, I hope you will remember that you once were a slave in Egypt, and that you have a sacred obligation, passed down to you by your parents and by their parents before them, to care for those who remain in slavery.
Kol Tuv (Be Well),
Monday, November 11, 2013
Thanksgivukkah: A Holiday in Multiple Civilizations
Posted by: Rabbi James Greene, Director of Programs on Monday, November 11, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)
The once in a lifetime holiday is almost upon us! Thanksgivukkah, with its festive meals and menurkey (a turkey-shaped menorah), will arrive at the end of this month. Perhaps you will be enjoying a manishevitz-brined turkey? Maybe some latke-crusted turkey cutlets, or sufganiyot stuffed with cranberries? However you celebrate, remembering the purpose of this joint holiday is important.
The Jewish community has always loved Thanksgiving. It speaks to the promise of a country that provided a home to a people that had been wandering for centuries. The Thanksgiving story we tell ourselves is one of a nation coming together to express gratitude and eat - what could be more Jewish? But for a religious civilization that struggles with religion (just look at the recent Pew report or at affiliation numbers among the Jewish community nationally), Thanksgivukkah invites us to celebrate the ways in which being Jewish enriches our American experience, and to celebrate how our American heritage enriches our Jewishness. It asks us to be grateful for the continued promise of the creative Jewish community, for the joy of sitting together in celebration of a little miracle, and for the simple pleasures of pumpkin pie kugel and turbrisket (a turkey stuffed with a brisket).
I hope you will get into the spirit of Thanksgivukkah this year. Think about gratitude and how it can encourage you to rededicate yourself to the community. Come to the JCC for some great Hanukkah programs from Olive Pressing to Sk8te Crazy Nights and Hanukah on Ice. Light your menurkey with pride!
Have a joyful holiday season filled with light, good food, and great community!
Hag urim sameah - have a light-filled holiday!
Thursday, October 10, 2013
A Jewish Vision Quest: TorahTrek Guides Track
Posted by: Rabbi James Greene, Director of Programs on Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)
Midrash – a collection of extra-biblical stories which attempts to fill in the gaps of the biblical narrative.
Torah – the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
The midrash tells us that we can only receive torah when we empty ourselves and become wild like the wilderness. I never really knew what that meant until I ventured out on my first soul-o quest. This 72-hour experience, shaped by Native American vision quests, is meant to provide a Jewish framework to ancient questions of connection, nurturing of spirit, and deep awareness. My journey, completed as part of a two-year intensive Jewish Wilderness Guides track program with TorahTrek, took me to the mountains of New Mexico and gave me the gift of a vision I will carry with me for my entire life.
When I first think of spending time alone in the woods, a few things come to my mind. First, how enjoyable it will be to get away from civilization. How nice it will be to not hear ring tones or the woosh that my email makes as it dissapears from my iPhone. At the same time, how difficult it will be to separate myself from all those modern conveniences. I eagerly awaited the connection with nature. But with nothing to distract me from my boredom, I was nervous that perhaps I would lose focus and get lost (spiritually, not physically). Most of all, I fixated on the fasting; no food for the entire time I was out on soul-o. Just water and some energy drink mixture to help keep my electrolytes up. Yom Kippur would be nothing compared to this!
I packed up my stuff and left that morning. Rabbi Mike Comins, our teacher, sent us off with blessings. I cried - although I was not sure why. I think I was nervous about the spiritual work to come. I left my fellow guides and headed off to the woods.
The life was beautiful in the woods. Trees and grasses, rocks and dirt, animals and insects - all were so welcoming to the space I had chosen. The land we were on was incredibly holy. The earth itself is a holy thing, reflective of God's presence in all things. But that land especially so. People have gathered for decades to quest there and, just as the Western Wall is steeped in the holiness of all those prayers, that land too is steeped in the holiness of those past quests. I felt incredibly held in that space.
I spent time praying. I spent a great deal of time in meditation. I explored the area and offered thanks to the lives of that place. I slept. I saw a bear. I had moments of real clarity. I grew. I had visions.
What happens on the quest is a private thing. Even my partner has yet to hear the story of my time on soul-o. Reb Andy Gold, one of the gedoley hador (the great people of our generation) taught me that a quest is medicine. In that way, it is a private experience between me and the land. The quest provided me with the medicine I needed. I did have visions; real moments that felt like out-of-body experiences. And I left that land with a different sense of what it means to be one of the created beings, one of the sensuous beings that make up the world we share.
I don't know if I will ever be back at Rose Mountain, the place where my TorahTrek group quested this summer. I do know that I am forever connected to that land, and to the spot where I left a piece of my soul and accepted a piece of soul from that place into me. More importantly, I discovered that the wilderness can empty us out and can help us make space for the spiritual medicine we are seeking. And I hope that my own spiritual journey will take me again to the woods to quest. I hope it will take you there as well.
TorahTrek is the Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality. Rabbi Mike Comins, who founded TorahTrek, also trains Jewish wilderness guides through his Guides Track. Additionally, he hosts retreats around the country, including an annual April retreat here in Northern California. For more information, please visit http://www.torahtrek.org/
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Hear the Sounds of the Shofar
Posted by: Rabbi James Greene, Director of Programs on Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)
The shofar is one of the most powerful symbols in Jewish tradition. It is, as Maimonides describes it, a wakeup call to the new year and to the act of Teshuvah (repentance). For all its beauty and wonder, I have always struggled with understanding the various sounds of the shofar. Why are there different kinds of sounds for the shofar? What is the shofar trying to teach us about our own need to change course? Here is a refresher for those who would like on the three blasts:
Teki’ah – a single blast
Teru’ah – several short blasts
Shevarim – three broken blasts
When we listen to the shofar, we are listening in two different ways; with our ears and also with our hearts. Our ear-listening is seeking to understand the qualities of the sound of the blast. It is long or short. High or low. Soft or loud. Our internal listening – our heart listening, is asking for us to let the deeper sound of the shofar enter us and help in the teshuvah process.
The three blasts of the shofar, at least for me, correspond to the three kinds of teshuvah that we seek to engage in:
Teki’ah – s single round of teshuvah responding to an issue that we believe we can resolve this year
Teru’ah – the beginning of a longer teshuvah process that may take many years, corresponding to a larger or more complex issue
Shevarim – calling on the ways in which we are broken or have been damaged and beginning the process of healing.
The first two types of teshuvah – growth from things that we would like to do differently – are more common interpretations for the shofar blasts. It is the blast of shevarim, which seeks to help us heal our internal brokenness, that encourages us to look deeper this year.
What are the ways that we are broken? What is the baggage we hold on to that is no longer helpful in our lives? What are the loyal soldiers who at one point helped us stay safe, but now need repurposing into a healthier or safer role? Although it does not fit into a classic understanding of teshuvah, I believe that this kind of healing is as important as the healing we seek to make amends for the ways we have hurt others.
This year, as we approach Yom Kippur, I encourage you to listen to the sounds of the shofar in this heart-way. If we can open that space of heart-listening, I believe we can find the impact of the shofar blasts that our ancestors envisioned many thousands of years ago when they instituted this ritual as part of the teshuvah process.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
New Jewish Theatre at the JCC
Posted by: Jenessa Schwartz, Director of the Center for Jewish Life and Learning on Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)
Early this year, Rabbi James Greene, Program Director at the APJCC, approached Doug Brook – a local director, actor, and playwright – about starting a Jewish theatre entity at the JCC. Together with Jenessa Schwartz, Director of Jewish Life, they created Theatre Chevruta, a Jewish readers theatre. The theatre launches its initial season – dubbed “A Taste of Yiddish Theatre” – with the play Tevya and His Daughters, which ran off-Broadway in the late 1950s and helped inspire the creation of Fiddler on the Roof.
Why “Theatre Chevruta?” As its mission explains, “Theatre is an exploration of culture, entertainment, and ideas, shared by the audience and performers. Chevruta is an exploration of the Talmud, shared by two people. Theatre Chevruta lets audience and performers explore important, entertaining, and often unfamiliar offerings of Jewish theatre.”
“The goal is to offer entertaining, thought-provoking, and atypical plays that people might otherwise not see,” says Brook, who is Theatre Chevruta’s artistic director. “The first five plays you think of probably aren’t the ones we’d present, but what we do perform will not feel unfamiliar. We won’t neglect the ‘entertaining’ in our mission.”
Future seasons could focus on Israeli plays, new works, obscure classics, classics with pivotal Jewish themes or characters (such as The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta), or eventually concert readings of obscure musicals such as Two by Two or Milk and Honey.
Theatre Chevruta will present staged readings, rather than full productions. This increasingly popular form is often used for developing new works and presenting obscure pieces, to focus on the actors and script without all the trappings. “If you’ve been to the New Works Festival at Theatreworks in Palo Alto, or even if you haven’t, it will be rather like that,” says Brook, a member of their New Play Reading Committee. In addition to the readings, there will also be audience talkbacks and a talk related to each play in the weeks prior to the performances.
Tevya and His Daughters was chosen for its relative familiarity, but also to commemorate next year’s fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Fiddler on the Roof. By coincidence, Brook is performing as Tevye in Fiddler at WVLO in Saratoga this November and December.
Next March will feature the iconic and controversial Yiddish theatre piece God of Vengeance. The original, by Sholem Asch, had its entire cast arrested during its Broadway opening in 1923. Theatre Chevruta will present the late-1990s adaptation by renowned playwright Donald Margulies.
Brook, whose own plays include What Ever Happened to HanuClaus? which premiered off-off-Broadway, is a familiar presence in our community. He is a longtime Torah Reader and periodic instructor at Congregations Sinai and Beth David, as well as a recent instructor at the APJCC. He is also a vice president of the international Association for Jewish Theatre, and the longtime humor columnist for Southern Jewish Life magazine.
Tevya and His Daughters will be presented December 7th and 8th at the APJCC, including an audience talkback with the director and cast after the matinee.
For more information about Theatre Chevruta or Tevya and His Daughters, click here!
Monday, July 15, 2013
Confidentiality and Jewish Tradition
Posted by: Rabbi James Greene, Director of Programs on Monday, July 15, 2013 at 12:00:00 am Comments (0)
The problems of privacy and information protection are not new to the world or Jewish tradition. One of my favorite Talmudic stories notes that Rabbi Kahana went and hid under the bed of his teacher, Rav. While there, he listened to Rav engage in conversation and passionate foreplay with Ms. Rav. Hearing their passionate encounter, Rabbi Kahana forgot that he was hiding and exclaimed “It seems like this is your wedding night!” Rav realized that his student was hiding under the bed and rebuked him, saying “Kahana, is that you? It is not proper to hide under the bed of your teacher!” Rabbi Kahana answered from under the bed, “this too is Torah and I must learn it!”
Although perhaps a little far-fetched, this story pushes buttons when thinking about how we handle sensitive information about others. Do we hold on to confidential information or do we pass it along because the world has a right to know? How do we share information in a just and prudent way and ensure that people who need have access to information that will help them? How do we punish people who violate our sense of confidentiality or secrecy? All these questions and more were raised during the past month as the revelation of former NSA-employee Edward Snowden’s massive trove of intelligence information and the government’s Prism program became public knowledge.
It is good to have secrets and it is good to keep secrets. Proverbs teaches that “a base person gives away secrets while a trustworthy person keeps a confidence.” The rabbis of the Talmud broaden this teaching to understand that even casual conversations should remain confidential. When the trust between people or between nations is broken the effects can be long lasting and damaging for all involved.
The release of this intelligence information offers many insights in to our society at large. We have become a truly voyeuristic society. We live our lives on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets; nothing is private anymore. In doing so we have raised a generation of young folks who believe that they are entitled to know all that is happening, even when that knowledge is unimportant or damaging. On the other hand, we have also created a government structure which essentially makes secret all that it touches and then does little to protect that secrecy. How else could a young man simply download all this important information about deeply held secrets while sitting at his work station in a non-governmental office and then walk out the door with no one noticing?
If we have learned anything from this experience, or previous intelligence scandals like Wikileaks, it is that we need to modernize the way in which we classify and secure information. This information, especially the kind that will save lives later on, needs to be kept safe. But we should also remember to modernize how we determine what needs to be kept confidential. Confidentiality for its own sake is not a useful tool. Even the authors of the Bible would note that secrecy can be detrimental to society. Jonathan Stein, writing on Judaism and Privacy, reminds us to ask, “Does less privacy equal greater public safety or individual authenticity?” This all important question appears to be missing in the debate and I hope will be rectified soon.
I am saddened by the revelation of this intelligence program. Not because I believe it is an infringement on my rights, but because I believe it shows how little we actually value the secrets we keep. It is my hope that its release will not cause harm to American diplomats working at home or abroad to protect our nation, or to the relationships we have with our world neighbors. But I hope that from its release we can learn not only how to protect information more effectively, but also discern as a nation what information is worthy of protection. Only then can we climb out from under the bed and start focusing on the real work of leadership in a global society that is in desperate need of a voice of reason and justice.