Do Jews Believe in Christmas? 

 

 

The video above is a little tune from my band Midnight Nosh about the holiday season. It reflects, in some way, my childhood desire as a Jewish boy growing up in the Bible Belt to celebrate Christmas – and the unavoidable comparison of two winter holidays that have very little to do with each other (historically speaking.) On a more serious note, the Xmas season always brings with it questions from neighbors and friends about what Jewish people think and feel about the Christmas story and celebration. Here’s a piece that I wrote in response to one such question:

Last year before Christmas I got a Facebook message from my church-going high school sweetheart. (We still write, yes, and don’t worry folks, my wife knows about it.)

“My sister has just converted to Judaism. My children are very interested in this. They’d all learned the dreidel song and dance in their elementary school. My eldest daughter “schooled” them on what she knows about Judaism. She reminded them that Jesus was a Jew. Anyway, she also asked a poignant question: “Do Jewish people still believe in the Christmas story?” She said,” I know they believe he was a great Prophet, but not the son of God. However, do they believe in the manger story?” I thought about what you might say, especially to children, and I replied, “Yes.”Whereas, my sister at dinner last night, replied with an emphatic, “No!” Could you answer these questions for them?”

Continue reading “Do Jews Believe in Christmas? “

An Open Letter to NY Giant Geoff Schwartz

This first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News:

2015-05-01_1602

Dear Mr. Schwartz,

When I first heard that you, an offensive guard for the New York Giants, are planning on playing against the Dallas Cowboys on a game unfortunately scheduled to begin after sunset on Sunday, Sept. 13, the first night of Rosh Hashana, I have to admit that I was a bit crestfallen.

I know that when you were a college freshman on the University of Oregon team, you took a day off for Yom Kippur. When I heard that the NFL had ignored the Giants request, and scheduled te game on Rosh Hoshanah, Continue reading “An Open Letter to NY Giant Geoff Schwartz”

Was MLK Wrong About Non-Violence?

images-4Fifty years ago, accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a bold statement about non-violence. On that day in Stockholm, he argued that non-violence was not simply a protest tactic to overcome the oppression of his time but a new way for humans to exist together:
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Reading these words to a group of European dignitaries, all of whom had lived through the brutality of the Second World War, Dr. King’s message sounds spiritually uplifting, messianic and, truthfully, somewhat naive. Can humans really evolve beyond revenge, aggression, and retaliation? Are there examples when “love” built a foundation that really succeeded on a societal level? Or is his vision another fantasy? Continue reading “Was MLK Wrong About Non-Violence?”

Contraception and Religious Freedom

One of the great things about writing for the Huffington Post is that people read what you write. My piece on religious freedom, contraception, and the Hobby Lobby decision went up two weeks ago and already there are  2,300 likes on Facebook and over a hundred comments written on the piece.

When Will the U.S. Supreme Court Protect the Freedoms of Religious People Who Use Contraceptives?

Posted: 06/30/2014 1:41 pm

I must admit that I was shocked to read about today’s 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the claims made by the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties corporations. Their argument, that a health care mandate that requires them to provide contraception to their employees is in violation of their religious rights, seemed out-of-step with reality on multiple levels. Corporations don’t have religious rights, for one, or at least that is what I thought. And it seemed like the case was more about the current political tension over Obamacare — a debate that pits small government and big government advocates against one another — than a legitimate religious rights issue. But now that I have read the decision, I have to wonder: Was the court so overly-focused on the potential indirect violation of religious freedoms of one set of Americans that they forgot to consider the actual religious freedoms of millions of others? Continue reading “Contraception and Religious Freedom”

The Passover Egg

What exactly is the egg doing on the seder plate? Why do we serve eggs on Passover?

The roasted orb has been a guest of honor for generations and hardly a word has been spoken in its direction. The matzah, the shank bone, the bitter herbs — they generate the buzz year after year. But what would you say about the egg?

After polling some of my friends, I came up with a list of things we’ve heard about the neglected egg. At the top, of course, was “The egg is a symbol of life.” Other comments: “The egg is symbolic of the Temple sacrifice” (historic), “The egg reminds us that God has no beginning and no end” (theological), “The egg is the food of mourning” (psychological) and “The egg is a symbol of springtime and rebirth” (seasonal).

Then there’s this rather unusual observation: “Eggs are like the Jews — the more time they spend in oppressive heat the tougher they get.”

Where do these references come from? It came as a shock to me that none of these explanations of the egg appear in either the Bible or the Talmud. In fact, the only mention we have from ancient sources is from some rather creative wordplay. In Aramaic — the language of the Talmud — the word for egg, “beya,” is the same word as the word for “please.”

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a suggestion that on Passover the egg be presented together with the shoulder bone: “Please, God, lift us up from slavery!”

What this tells us is that the various observations that I culled from my friends are relatively new. As Jews in Calcutta, Crakow, Chadera, Caracas and Cleveland have placed eggs on their seder plates, they’ve creatively interpreted the meaning of these oval delicacies. Creating new meanings for the foods eaten on Passover night has become an important tradition.

With that historical context in mind, here’s a new ritual for the seder table — one that helps seder participants reflect on eggs and the other foods that aren’t part of the Haggadah’s telling.

Here’s how it’s done:

Ask the people at your seder table to think for a moment about eggs. As you point to the egg, or pass it around, ask your guests to connect their thoughts on eggs to the Passover story. They might say, “Peeling an egg is done to free the egg from its shell –but this peeling is a difficult task, just like the peeling away of the slavery mentality of our ancestors.”

Or someone might say, “An egg, due to its shape, cannot stand without help. From this we learn that our ancestors needed help to stand up against Pharaoh.” Guests might speak of the egg itself or, for example, they might pair the egg with matzah or with the parsley and speak about how these foods are connected.

After that, ask people to suggest connections to any of the other foods your family shares: the rosemary chicken, macaroons, figs or sesame candies. Are there memories of specific family or friends to whom these foods connect you? Can you creatively relate these foods to the themes of the Passover seder?

Asking these questions can certainly be a way to add a dose of spontaneity to your seder. And who knows, maybe in years to come Passover seders will include some of your family’s insights.

Over the years, the Passover seder has grown from a simple meal of meat and herbs on matzah to an elaborate feast. This has happened, in part, because in each generation and in each region, Jews have creatively added on to the set of foods used to tell the story. These new practices were not seen as a challenge to the tradition — they were seen as enhancing it.

That said, I would not be surprised if someday my great-grandchildren’s seder plate has a few extra circles — and maybe even some macaroons. The Haggadah of the future might read: “These coconut treats remind us that what is hard to crack on the outside is often sweet on the inside. Once our ancestors broke free from oppression, they could taste the sweetness of freedom.”

Questioning Darwin

I’ve got a new essay running up on the Huffington Post. You can find it here if you’d like to read it and all the bizarre commentaries that follow it. Or for the text, see below…

“If I started talking about science from the pulpit,” a seasoned Methodist minister sitting to my left said, “my wife would shoot a spitball from the choir!” As Anthony Thomas’ new documentary about the rise of creationism entitled Questioning Darwin is about to air on HBO, I’ve been thinking about a thought provoking seminar I took part in seven years ago
at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City called: Evolution, DNA and the Soul.

Needless to say, this was not your typical preaching course. First off, it was taught by a biologist from Columbia University, Bob Pollack, who drew maps of DNA on the board that looked like offensive plays of the Seattle Sehawks. Second, the class was a diverse mix of religious traditions and denominations — there was a retired Catholic priest, a young Presbyterian just starting his ordination process, a Rabbi of a small synagogue, a hospital chaplain pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, a young Muslim who shared Koranic verses on Eden — and they all came with a desire to learn science. The tough questions were all out on the table: How do scientists know that life emerges from totally random processes? Can science really tell us about the beginning of the world? Are we even close to explaining consciousness?

Pollack, who sported a gnome-like beard and the grin to go with it, was blunt:

The world had its beginning in a tiny particle fourteen and a half billion years ago; life and consciousness arose from a series of random mutations and energy transfers, and the whole thing will eventually have its end in a lukewarm soup of electrons. And yes, we have the data to prove it.
Needless to say, this made me and the other clergy around the room rather restless.

“But we are not simply chemicals,” a minister who works for an inter-denominational church organization replied: “I have experienced, in my life, moments when I knew that I was connected to the One — to the spirit which is beyond the physical — and that is what I mean when I talk about God — that universal spirit.”

The retired priest put it another way. “You can not reduce the mind and heart to a mathematical equation.” A Unitarian educator took another tactic: “Isn’t science a myth just like religion is a myth?”

It looked like the religious folks — even the Unitarians — were fleeing from the cold facts of science at the speed of light. And with each comment, Pollack’s restlessness and hostility toward the notion of “the spiritual” was physically evident. His knees bobbed up and down. He drew his arms around his chest. His head nodded in that “keep talking, because I am going to make you eat your words” pose. I thought the guy was going to snap.

But Pollack suppressed his anger in a most surprising way. He pulled out a Bible.

Look at Genesis. In Genesis the entire universe is made from words. The earth and sky and every plant and animal are made through God’s speech. But humans are not made in this way — God synthesizes humans from nature, from dirt, from a mix of organic and inorganic. In other words, we are made of live things and dead things. And we are the first example of chemistry and of transformation. As a result, we are the first species to have developed the ability to understand the bio-chemistry of the natural world. For this reason we are called “in God’s image.”
The scientist was preaching. In one stunning move of theological archeology, Pollack had dug to the heart of the text and unearthed a revelation — the God of Genesis is not only the creator that brought the universe into being with the power of language, but the first bio-chemist who conducts experiments with complex organisms. Adam and Eve eating of the tree — knowing that they would “be like gods” — was the birth not of sin, but of science.

As part of the course we all took a field trip to the Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. While the throngs of public school kids tapped the glass of the lizard exhibit, we clergy stared into a small case displaying the leather-bound Bible Darwin read on the Beagle.

Can everything be reduced to an equation? Theoretically, yes. But since neither eating of the Tree of Knowledge, nor devoting one’s life to neuro-scientific research, is going to produce a satisfying equation that accurately embodies the intricately complex system that we term human consciousness, the question is actually not so important. The important question, we clergy folk discovered, was the one that Pollack posed to us after the short bible study: “So what knowledge other than scientific knowledge do we need to thrive as humans?”

For those of us who have felt the power of religious ritual, the embrace of religious communities, the prophetic call to a path of righteousness, and the reverberations of life-changing moments of deep connection with the Holy Blessed One, there is another type of knowledge.

On the last day of our week together, both types of knowledge, scientific and religious, were in dialogue with one another. And we asked ourselves what it would mean to be clergy who not only respected science’s vision of a random, non-designed universe, but who preached the importance of taking a fresh look at our traditional theologies in the light of Darwin’s brilliant discoveries. I haven’t heard yet from my Methodist friend, but I hear he’s practicing his skills at dodging spitballs.

Preach, Scientist, Preach!

One Man’s Quest to Teach Science to Clergy

By Daniel S. Brenner

“If I started talking about science from the pulpit” a seasoned Methodist minister sitting to my left said, “my wife would shoot a spitball from the choir!” At a time when folks are dressing creationism in a lab coat and attempting to sneak it into public school classrooms I’m sitting with a group of established and emerging religious leaders in a class at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City called Evolution, DNA and the Soul. Needless to say, this is not your typical preaching course. First off, it is taught by a biologist from Columbia University, Bob Pollack, who draws maps of DNA on the board that look like offensive plays of the Seattle Sehawks. Second, the class is a diverse mix of religious traditions and denominations – there is a retired Catholic priest, a young Presbyterian just starting his ordination process, a Rabbi of a small synagogue, a hospital chaplain pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, a young Muslim who shares Koranic verses on Eden – and they are all coming with a desire to learn science. The tough questions are all out on the table: How do scientists know that life emerges from totally random processes? Can science really tell us about the beginning of the world? Are we even close to explaining consciousness?

Pollack, who sports a gnome-like beard and the grin to go with it, is blunt: “The world had its’ beginning in a tiny particle fourteen and a half billion years ago, life and consciousness arose from a series of random mutations and energy transfers, and the whole thing will eventually have its’ end in a lukewarm soup of electrons. And yes, we have the data to prove it.”

Needless to say, this makes me and the other clergy around the room rather restless.

“But we are not simply chemicals” a minister who works for an inter-denominational church organization replied “I have experienced, in my life, moments when I knew that I was connected to the One – to the spirit which is beyond the physical – and that is what I mean when I talk about God – that universal spirit” The retired priest put it another way. “You can not reduce the mind and heart to a mathematical equation.” A Unitarian educator took another tactic – “Isn’t science a myth just like religion is a myth?”

It looked like the religious folks – even the Unitarians – were fleeing from the cold facts of science at the speed of light. And with each comment, Pollack’s restlessness and hostility toward the notion of ‘the spiritual’ was physically evident. His knees bobbed up and down. He drew his arms around his chest. His head nodded in that ‘keep talking, because I am going to make you eat your words’ pose. I thought the guy was going to snap.

But Pollack suppressed his anger in a most surprising way. He pulled out a Bible. “Look at Genesis. In Genesis the entire universe is made from words. The earth and sky and every plant and animal are made through God’s speech. But humans are not made in this way – God synthesizes humans from nature, from dirt, from a mix of organic and inorganic. In other words, we are made of live things and dead things. And we are the first example of chemistry and of transformation. As a result, we are the first species to have developed the ability to understand the bio-chemistry of the natural world. For this reason we are called ‘in God’s image.’”

The scientist was preaching. In one stunning move of theological archeology, Pollack had dug to the heart of the text and unearthed a revelation – the God of Genesis is not only the creator that brought the universe into being with the power of language, but the first bio-chemist who conducts experiments with complex organisms. Adam and Eve eating of the tree – knowing that they would ‘be like gods’ – was the birth not of sin, but of science.

As part of the course we all took a field trip to the new Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. While the throngs of public school kids tapped the glass of the lizard exhibit, we clergy stared into a small case displaying the leather-bound bible Darwin read on the Beagle.

Can everything be reduced to an equation? Theoretically, yes. But since neither eating of the Tree of Knowledge nor devoting one’s life to neuro-scientific research is going to produce a satisfying equation that accurately embodies the intricately complex system that we term human consciousness, the question is actually not so important. The important question, we clergy folk discovered, was the one that Pollack posed to us after the short bible study – “So what knowledge other than scientific knowledge do we need to thrive as humans?”

For those of us who have felt the power of religious ritual, the embrace of religious communities, the prophetic call to a path of righteousness, and the reverberations of life-changing moments of deep connection with the Holy Blessed One, there is another type of knowledge.

On the last day of our week together, both types of knowledge, scientific and religious, were in dialogue with one another. And we asked ourselves what it would mean to be clergy who not only respected science’s vision of a random, non-designed universe, but who preached the importance of taking a fresh look at our traditional theologies in the light of Darwin’s brilliant discoveries. I haven’t heard yet from my Methodist friend, but I hear he’s practicing his skills at dodging spitballs.