Top Ten Jewish Folktales: The Holy Ark

Author’s note: Top Ten Jewish Folktales is a writing project that I’ve been working on to retell my favorite classic Jewish folktales.Enjoy!

The Holy Ark

One Shabbat, Rabbi Levi saw a poor and hungry man weeping in the back row of the synagogue.

That afternoon, the Rabbi had lunch with a very rich man. They drank, and then the rich man said: “Rabbi, I have to be honest. I buy many things but I use them and am not satisfied. I feel empty. What should I do? “ The Rabbi said: “You should learn to give. Each Friday morning, come to the synagogue and put two challahs, a bottle of wine, and a kugel into the holy ark as a way of saying thank you to God for your abundant wealth.

Later that day the poor man spoke with the rabbi. “Rabbi, he said, “I can not feed my family. So I am very angry. All day I walk the streets upset.” “You should learn to open your heart,” the Rabbi said, “come on Friday afternoon to the synagogue. Speak to God with all your heart. Then open the ark, and God will give you all that you need.”

The next Friday, the rich man placed two challahs, a bottle of wine, and a kugel into the ark. He felt good giving in this way. The poor man prayed before the ark, opened it, and found the food. He was delighted.

This went on for many years. Then one morning, the rich man did not come. The poor man came, prayed, opened the ark and found nothing. His family would go hungry. He turned around to leave the synagogue, when in came the rich man, carrying two challahs, a bottle of wine and a kugel. “What are you doing with that food?” the poor man asked. “I’m putting it in the ark” the rich man said. The poor man looked confused.

“Don’t be upset,” the rich man said, “the Rabbi told me to do this.”

The poor man looked at the food and then said: “Upset? How can I be upset? God usually leaves food for my family in the ark, but today, I’m getting it hand delivered by a messenger!”

The rich man handed him the food and wine with a smile.

Address to the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis

Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
April 25, 2012

Twenty-two years ago, as a bright-eyed college graduate, I was deciding between studying in a Yeshiva around the corner from my cousins’ house in Crown Heights or going to Suburban Philadelphia, where I knew absolutely no one, but I could study with Art Green at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I wish that I could say that I wanted to study with Art because of his scholarship in chassdiut. Or that I was enamored with his work in contemporary theology. But sadly, the reason I wanted to study with Rabbi Green was because he had written a few minor essays in the 1960s and 70s on casual sex and pot smoking. At the time I envisioned Art as some sot of rabbinic Jerry Garcia, a father figure who reeked of patchouli, vegetarian stew and the Baal Shem Tov, and who had the power to hand me keys to spiritual doors so that I, too, could one day be such a guru.

As a college senior in the #1 party school in America, the University of Wisconsin, I stopped into a video game arcade to take a passport photo, borrowed a friend’s computer to type out an essay, and I applied for admission at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I flew to Philadelphia for the interview, took a train to Jenkintown, and was greeted by Howard Cohen, a student in his final year at the school, who served as my host. As we walked around the college building I thought that I had mistakenly landed backstage at an Indigo Girls concert. Or, to be more accurate, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. Yes, there was a friendly Orthodox guy who worked in the library, but most of the students were women and they all appeared to be ten years older than me and in various stages of man-hating. At the time the popular feminist jewelry was the double-sided axe worn on a chain around the neck. What were these axes going to cut? It was a confusing symbol to a guy like me who was born and raised in the Bible Belt – Charlotte, North Carolina. After the interview and the news that I was accepted, Howard said that we needed to lift some beers to celebrate. This was a sentiment I could relate to. We walked into town, me wearing a yarmulke in public for the first time, in search of an open bar.

The only place that was open in Jenkintown was a dive that featured topless dancers. OK – that’s inaccurate. This place featured a singular topless dancer. So I found myself, four hours after getting into rabbinical school wearing a yarmulke in a strip club. Howard, wisely, ordered a six pack of beers and we went back to his porch and drank.

The next morning, I went to Rosenberg’s books and bought a leather-bound gold embossed artscroll siddur. I walked back into Howard’s house, showed him the book, and he said: “Why did you buy that?” I said that the explanations looked good. He gave me a look. One of those looks that says – “oy, have you got a lot to learn.”

Needless to say, when fall came around, and I got to meet my classmates, I was in for an eye-opening and wonderful experience. I joined a learning community that challenged me in multiple ways and I began to forge unexpected friendships that nurture me to this day.

But I am not here today to regale you with tales of rabbinical school. For anyone who does want to hear about my formation as a rabbi, my one-man show entitled Faster, Rabbi, Drill! Drill! still exists. The only caveat is that you need to own a working cassette tape player to listen to it. What I do want to focus on today is gender.

Twenty years ago, my thoughts about gender and Judaism were challenged and expanded in the presence of my teacher at RRC the late Tikve Frymer Kensky Z’L For those of you haven’t come across Tikvah in your studies, she was a true trailblazer. She received a doctorate from Yale in 1977 in Assyriology and Sumerology and was one of the first women to academically challenge the male-dominated world of Biblical Scholarship. She was the first woman named a scholar of distinction by the Jewish Publication Society. She gave some classes on her back porch. While her 8 year old son was jumping mushrooms on his Nintendo, she would recite the Gilgamesh epic in ancient Sumerian and simultaneously translate. In her class, we learned that the roots of Biblical Judaism were not to be found in patriarchy alone, but in a synthesis of feminine and masculine mythic idioms including lactating trees, fertility goddesses, and birthing stones as well as the warrior-Gods and storm gods of the region.

While many of us were busy writing new, gender-neutral liturgy, Tikvah was busy sharing four -thousand –year-old Hebrew amulet inscriptions for pregnant women. She loved to talk about ancient understandings of sexuality and probably the best moment in her class was when she was lecturing on circumcision and she said. “I’m not a very good artist, could someone come up to the board and draw an uncircumcised penis.”

It was a wonderful time in Jewish life in terms of feminist scholarship and new thinking about gender, sexuality, and Jewish ritual. Leslea Newman came to class one day and read us from her new book about Heather and her Two Mommies. We all had dog-eared copies of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. And every baby girl born in the community would be welcomed with a naming / foot washing / brit / new song ceremony that seemed to go on for five hours. Needless to say, towards the end of rabbinical school there were lively debates about the merits of Xena Warrior Princess.

And this discussion had an impact on theology. In the beginning of rabbinical school, I thought that what was best was to envision God as being totally beyond gender. I wanted more than anything for the Jewish God to be like the force in Star Wars. I could close my eyes and feel it and Rabbi Yoda could teach me how to use it to blow up the Death Star.

But then I read Howard Eilberg Scwartz’s gender discourse in God’s Phallus. And started to wonder if an invisible god is really the solution. Looking back at my copy of the book, I marked a passage which bears a re-read:

“feminist theorists argue that representation of a disembodied masculine God ends up supporting the association of masculinity with spirituality and, by way of contrast, denigrating femininity as being associated with the body. God creates by the word and not the body, masculinity is linked to intellectual and spiritual activity while femininity is bound to the passive functions of the body – the bearing and nurturing of children.

There are however, a number of myths in ancient Judaism that imagine God as having, or at least appearing in, human form….the idea of God’s body has enormous implications, not only for understanding how ancient Jews figured procreation, conception, masculinity, the male body, and the phallus, but also for feminist and analytic views of religion. How must the terms of this discussion change if God’s body is veiled rather than nonexistent? “
(p. 21-22)

A year after I finished rabbinical school, Rachel Adler came out with her brilliant work Engendering Judaism. In her work, she offers a new paradigm for thinking about gender and sexuality, and most importantly, thinking not just about God’s gender or God’s body, but about Jewish practice.
In her words:

“The purpose of feminist Jewish hermeneutic is not to reject either text or law but to seek ways of claiming them and living them out with integrity. It keeps faith with texts by refusing to absolve them of moral responsibility. It honors halakhah by affirming its inexhaustible capacity to be created anew. “p. 58

That was twenty years ago. And for two decades now, we in Liberal Jewish circles have affirmed egalitarianism and gender neutrality, have taught that gender is a social construct, that gender is something artificially bifurcated, that gender is a performance. We do not think that there is something essential about being a man or being a woman. Male and female is not wired in our brains like some blue and pink software and gender is not in the hardware either. As we all graduated rabbi school, eager to transform liturgy and communal practice, we envisioned a world that was Gender free, gender neutral, post-gender.

And then we met teenagers. If you have not spent time lately with this fascinating sub-species of human, they tend to travel in packs, subsist on snack foods, communicate through cryptic digital clicks and spend a great deal of time covering up their various skin conditions with products extracted from botanical elements. Two of these creatures happen to live under my roof.

My colleagues and I had thought that gender roles were not as big a deal anymore for teenagers because we were diverted by news stories that seemed to point in that direction. We heard about the impact of Title IX on women’s sports. We knew that girls were doing better in middle school, even in math. Gay-Straight Alliances were making high school bearable for LGBTQI students. We had thought that things were getting better and then as we met teens that were struggling to conform to unrealistic gender expectations, we started to realize that things might actually have gotten worse in the last twenty years. We heard a lot of confusion from teens as well as stories of prescription drug abuse, eating disorders, date rape, an the messy business of “friends-with-benefits.” Things were certainly not getting much better for girls, things were getting much worse for guys, and LGBTQI teens were facing new types of harassment.

Looking at the generation, we asked: How did a group of parents who all went through school influenced by feminism end up raising teens who are struggling under the weight of gender expectations? Did they change? Did society change? What happened?

I think that things have, in fact, changed and I hope to discuss this with you today. In my current work, I have been thinking a great deal about how expectations for men have changed and thinking specifically about how the lives of teen boys in our community are impacted. Before I say more about that, I’d like to reflect for a minute on two changes that I see happening related to teenagers and gender.

The first element of change is related to the rise of niche marketing and new media. I remember reading a story in 2008 about how executives had decided that the Disney Channel was losing tween boys so they launched Disney XD, a channel for tween boys that would show more violent shows. Or as they said, more “action.” Teen Nick saw a similar opening in niche programs for tween girls. They added more “drama” Nintendo saw a new market and started to program video games specifically for girls, and developed successful new lines of games that encouraged girls to care for ponies or make sushi or make sushi for ponies while their brothers hunted down uni-browed terrorists. Rather than expand gender possibilities, the explosion of new media actually affirmed old gender lines. The result is that as we have seen the amount of screen time rise significantly in the lives of tweens and teens, we’ve also seen the emergence of fairly gender-segregated virtual spaces. With this has come a rapid rise of both reality television and pornography. These related genres solidify gender roles and give teens a constant stream of supposedly “real” men and women, straight and gay, who model what it is like to be a “real” man or woman. Rather than watch actors in sit-coms or dramas who can ridicule and subvert their gender roles, in reality shows teens watch non-actors who vie for popularity in highly gendered environments. For more than ninety percent of teens their primary source of sex education is hardcore pornography. This media is providing them with a steady stream of what it means to be a cool guy or a hot girl. Educators and parents are now stuck with the task of helping teens to think critically about a world where they are tuned into what Ariel Levy has dubbed “Raunch Culture.”

A second factor is related to a decline in what I would call social intimacy. Robert Putnam’s work in the late nineties described how communal organizations were breaking down in the U.S. Since that time, the rise of online social networking has certainly increased, but the amount of time that teens spend with friends in what was once called hanging out, away from parents, has been in sharp decline.

This has particularly been a problem for teen boys, a dynamic beautifully chronicled in of NYU professor Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets. She writes about the decline in intimate friendships among boys as they go through high school, and the sense of loss and isolation that many boys feel. Couple this with a world in which boys are losing out to girls academically and fewer boys are going to college and boys are spending increasingly more time than girls online and you get a picture of the challenges that we have with today’s teen boys.

Those are changes that I see in the wider world – but now I want to focus specifically on the Jewish community.

Within the Jewish community, the prominent role of men in nearly all aspects of Jewish life outside of traditional Orthodox circles has gradually diminished. While leaders of most major organizations and synagogues remain men (a glass ceiling that I would argue still needs to be shattered), the vast majority of participants are women. Moving Traditions’ research has shown that this drop-off begins for young men at age fourteen and continues throughout young adulthood. Recent studies by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University (notably by professors Len Saxe and Sylvia Fishman) have found that young men are underrepresented in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips, social action initiatives, Hillels, and ultimately under the chupah. Sylvia Fishman cleverly coined the term “patrilineal descent” to describe how men have slipped away from Jewish volunteer and philanthropic circles and Jewish communal life in general. Those of us who have taken on leadership roles in the Jewish community might ask: How are we failing so many young men?

While participation rates for young women have also declined in liberal Judaism, they have not declined as much as those for young men. The contributing factors that led to this growing gender imbalance in Jewish life are numerous and some of them are factors that we should celebrate. In the last three decades, barriers of prejudice breaking down in politics and in once closed philanthropic circles led men to pursue opportunities outside of the Jewish world. As America embraced a multicultural ethos, many Jewish men left behind their ethnic affiliations. They preferred an emerging secular globalism to what seemed like an outdated, provincial and religious worldview.

But another factor needs to be mentioned, one that is difficult for men and women to talk about. The changing roles of women in American society at large and the Jewish community in particular have had a profound impact on men’s participation. Here I want to be very careful. While it is critical that we do not project a “cause and effect” approach that blames men’s lack of involvement on women’s empowerment, I think that we need to acknowledge that the growing leadership of women in liberal Judaism is part of the equation. The majority of men under age thirty have grown up with almost exclusively female religious teachers in Hebrew School. In hundreds of communities that are not male -led 1,000 member plus congregations, there are many young men who have only spent time with female rabbis and cantors. What is more concerning though, is that young men in many congregations rarely see men who are devoted to Jewish learning and even fewer who care about Jewish liturgy and prayer. The impact of this lack of male mentors on teen boys has yet to be studied, but if it is like any other activity that becomes weighted to one gender, concerns for the continued participation of the other gender – here young men – are warranted.

At the same time that these mixed signals about men have emerged in liberal Judaism, Chabad rabbis successfully populated nearly every American zip code and offered a clear role for Jewish men. Reaching out to all Jewish men to “wrap tefillin” or “make a minyan” has affirmed the unique value of Jewish men offered by traditional Orthodoxy. The messages stand in contrast to one another: Liberal Judaism says “come and be equal in our welcoming congregation” and Orthodoxy says “we need you specifically because you are a man.” While we have no statistical evidence yet regarding the power of this draw to Chabad or other outreach movements, we imagine that it is double-edged. Some men see these efforts as unwanted proselytizing and others feel that they are needed as men by the Jewish community and welcome the opportunity to try Orthodoxy. While most men who participate in activities with Orthodox outreach rabbis do not hold the same theological views as these rabbis, they do feel comfortable learning with them and feel as if their contribution is valued.

Given that men often feel comfortable when other men are involved in social activities and that many crave to be accepted by a community of men, how can those of us outside of the traditional Orthodox outreach world think differently about engaging men?

Although I use the word engagement I have to admit that I have an aversion to the term. I prefer to think about our role as educators and as community builders in another way and ask “What are we offering men? Or more practically, does what we offer men speak to the needs, both social and spiritual, that they have currently identified in their lives and does it have the power to warrant communal obligation and commitment?”

That is the conversation I hope to spark today. It will force us to ask:

What do men need?

Do men need something that is special to men, or should we change what we do for everyone to engage men?

Is thinking about gender separate space a good thing at all? Are women’s groups and men’s groups a model we should move away from?

Should we begin to think of gendered groups in terms of three – female, trans, and male?

I hope that today we will have a chance do seriously tackle these questions and to learn from one another.

Explaining Reconstructionism – Chelm Style

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Chelm’s rabbi, Reb Dovid, was not a tall man. To reach the top row of his bookshelf, he had to stand on a crate, and on top of the crate he had to put another crate. One morning, as he was deep into his studies, he went reaching for a book on the top shelf to look up a word in his dictionary, and “Crash!” He flew off the crates and landed head first on the carpet! He was knocked out cold. He lay on the floor for nearly a minute. “Where am I?” he said as he got back on his feet. He didn’t recognize his own library. “Honey, what happened?” his wife, running in from the porch, called out. He looked at her up and down. “Who are you?” he said. The rabbi went into the cupboard and made a sandwich. He put a nice piece of cheese right on top of a piece of salami. The great Rabbi had forgotten the laws of keeping kosher. He took a bite without saying the brucha. He’d forgotten everything about his precious religion.

The town council met. “What are we going to do?” people shouted. The Mayor stood and spoke: “The rabbi remembers nothing! He is the only one who knows the laws and the stories that explain them–So we cannot continue with the religion of Judaism. We will have to create a new religion. Let us have a contest between the two smartest people in Chelm. They will create a new religion, and we will have a discussion and vote on it. I appoint Lev, the water carrier, and Shayna the dressmaker to bring us new religions by the next full moon!

As the moon grew from a tiny sliver to a bright, glowing light Lev the water carrier and Shayna the dressmaker thought about what the new religion would be based on. Who would they pray to? What would be the holidays? What would be the sacred places?

The full moon came and they were called to the town hall. The mayor rose, and announced: “Present us with our choice of religions!”

Lev began:

“We all need water to live. We must drink water, our bodies contain water, we use water to take a bath. So we should acknowledge the greatness of water. Every morning when we wake up, we should have a sacred holy act of taking a bath. Three times a day we shall drink a glass of water and say “Praised be water, the source of life”. Every time that it rains there should be a holiday. We will have a special ceremony when a child learns how to swim—then they will be called an adult. Any couple wishing to get married will simply take a bath together. The holiest place of all will be the ocean, which we will all visit every summer!”

The crowd applauded with delight. What a wonderful religion! Then Shayna got up and spoke:

“Why pray to water? Water can be muddy and yucky. It could have bugs in it. The ocean water smells like dead fish! Would you want to pray to something like that? We should pray to things that are beautiful and protect us. So I ask — what makes us beautiful? What protects us? The answer is simple–clothing. Look at all the colors–the reds, and blues and yellows and greens. When we get dressed in the morning we should say “Thank you shirt for making the world look nice!” We should say “Thank you sweater for keeping me warm, thank you belt for holding up my pants, thank you shoes for protecting my feet.” Clothes are very special objects—look how we care for them and fold them and admire them. In the clothes religion, every year we will have a shopping holiday, when everyone will purchase a new outfit of clothing. We will have another holiday when people exchange gifts of clothing. And we will celebrate with a costume ball. When a person learns to sew, they will be called an adult. When a couple wants to be married, they will purchase matching outfits. The holiest place of all will be the pasture where the sheep graze, because that is where the wool comes from to make clothes!”

The people of Chelm began to argue? “Water or clothes? What is more important? Without water we’d only have juice or milk to drink!” they said, “Without clothes we’d be running around naked like animals!” They discussed the issue for hours and hours. The debate went on, and more questions arose, and the people could not make a decision. Finally, the Mayor arose to speak.

“Citizens of Chelm,” he said, “ I have come to a decision, we can not decide between water and clothing, but we can all agree that we like to come together and have a discussion. Therefore we will have a new religion called the discussion religion. Each full moon we will have a community discussion night. Everyday at breakfast people should discuss a matter of importance with their family members. When a child can lead a discussion, they will be called an adult, when a couple would like to be married, they should discuss it. The holy place will be any place you have a conversation!”

The people applauded. They took a vote and everyone voted ‘yes’ for the discussion religion.

Just then the rabbi ran in, waving matzahs in his hands. “What is going on Rabbi?”

“I just got my memory back! I remember our religion!” he said, “ Tonight is Passover we must eat Matzah, and drink wine and eat horseradish, and charoset!

The Mayor delcared: “But Rabbi, we have already voted on a new religion! We cannot reverse our vote! It is against the by-laws of Chelm!”

The Rabbi thought, scratched his head, and then he declared: “I have a solution to the problem. Let us put the two religions together, we will have a discussion of Judaism, and we’ll have it at my house at the seder table!”

And so they all went to the Rabbi’s house for Passover and thus reconstructionism was born in Chelm.

Poetry for the Rosh Hashanah Meal

Eating the New Year

The ram’s head,

My great times great grandfather would eat,

To welcome the new year with words

“May we be the head and not the tail!”

But you, my son,

Dip apples into honey,

And did you remember to say

“To make for us a good and sweet year?”

At first we wished for abundance.

Your great times great-great grandfathers

tillers of soil,

(that was our side of the curse)

greeted the new year with

pumpkins and beans

and made poetic blessings from the names of each vegetable

and they added figs and pomegranate,

Meditating on the seeds, saying,

“Prosper! Prosper!”

Your great times great times great great grandfather,

When he was a boy,

Would climb the date palm, crush the sweet dates into a paste.

Feed them to your great times great times great times great grandfather with a spoon made of olive wood.

Old man saying:

May it be a sweet one.

Last year of his life.

Apples we discovered. And we slathered our date honey on them and said:

“Could there ever be anything sweeter together?”

And when we didn’t have date honey, we dipped them in sugar, and when not in sugar, into bee honey. “For a sweet new year.”

These waxed apples, this honey

so processed it looks like apple juice

those fingers which have hardly touched the earth

you, my son, are inheriting a world that is but a shadow of what once was…

But still you make a blessing,

Still you do with eyes closed,

and think of great times great grandfathers,

their eyes closed too, their eyes closed too.  


– Daniel S. Brenner


High Holiday Poetry? Alternative readings? Look no further!

To my friends in the rabbinic world and those amazing souls who are not rabbis but are preparing for the high holidays, I’m going to be posting the many poems I’ve penned for those alternative readings at a new blog…

www.highholidaypoems.blogspot.com

Enjoy! And drop me a line if you use one in your service!

A Parable for Rosh Hashanah


This is an adaptation of a parable from the Maggid of Dubno (Rabbi Jacob Kranz)

“Once there was a wealthy man who wanted to protect his fortune so he hid his wealth in different places in his house. He died before telling his young son where he had hidden the money. After the father’s death, the son lived in the home but he had no work and he had little to eat. He grew increasingly desperate and one day was counting out his last few silver coins when one of the coins dropped, and he crawled on the dirty floor to find it. He searched all over but he couldn’t find his coin. In desperation he pulled up the floorboards and found one of the sacks of golden coins his father had hidden. He opened the sack and was amazed at his fortune. He searched all through the house and found more and more sacks of gold but he never found his original, lost silver coin.”



I’m not sure what the Maggid of Dubno intended to convey with this story, but I love the juxtaposition of the two ideas: the house (the world) is filled with hidden treasure but the silver coin (youth? innocence? simplicity? the father?) is never found again. The parable also speaks to the idea of “looking for one thing but finding another” – a theme that runs back to Yacov’s “G-d is in this place and I, I did not know” moment. It is also a story about searching – what causes us to search, what we find and what we do not find. 

The parable also has a message for us for the coming year: Keep looking, don’t give up hope – the next floorboard you pull up will reveal great treasures.




  

The Terrorist’s Terrible Toothache

I will be reading my latest short story, The Terrorist’s Terrible Toothache, on Saturday, May 18th at B’nai Keshet 99 South Fullerton, Montclair NJ @ 8PM. The reading will be part of a literary salon that will include playwrights, songwriters, a dancer, poets, and apparently my beloved. Anyways – If you are interested in The Terrorist’s Terrible Toothache then come on down to Montclair!

Congregation B’nai Israel, Rumson, NJ

Here is an excerpt from a recent speech that I gave “installing” a rabbi: 
When I was young, my favorite book that my parents read to me was Leo Leonni’s Frederick.

Lionni was born in Amsterdam, the son of an Italian Jew, and he came to Philadelphia in 1939. He wrote Frederick in 1967. Here is the story: there is a group of field mice and they are all gathering grains and other foodstuffs for the coming winter months. All except for one – Frederick. What is Frederick doing? He is sitting watching the sunset, he is chasing butterflies, he’s watching the wheat blow in the wind. What are you doing? The other field mice say. “I am gathering colors” he says. Some of the mice mock him. But then, as they huddle together in darkness, for months on end, the field mice get depressed. Frederick begins to tell stories of the colors. He paints a picture for them in such a way that their winter depression is lifted and they all come to see the importance of his sacred task.

What, as we enter 2013, is the role of a communal spiritual leader? What is a rabbi for?

I want to suggest that there are two forces that are shaping our world as we enter into 2013.

The first is what I’ll call the global digital revolution. Future generations will look back on Steve Jobs as we look back on Thomas Edison, and Galielo Galeli. The instant interconnection of the globe through shared information is, indeed, a monumental shift in human culture. Within seconds, we can see what is going on all over the globe. A few weeks ago, I simultaneously watched a live feed from Gaza City and from Sderot from the comfort of my home in Montclair. At the same time, I was Gchatting with my Israeli cousins, reading Facebook rants from my friends on the left and the right, and shopping for Hannukah gifts.   

In some ways, the inter-connectivity is amazing. We can now access libraries and news and order flaxseed, shoe polish, hair gel, and garden gnomes.

But the inter-connectivity also has a downside, evidenced in the network of thieves, human traffickers, and nefarious predators who are harnessing the digital world for destructive purposes. The world has become a more dangerous place.

But what I want to focus attention not on the benefits or drawbacks of the digital era, but the way in which the digital era has produced a spiritual crisis. In our day, we want everything immediately, we can’t focus on one task, we are frustrated by anything that is not lightning fast, and we have an information overload.

Many students in our schools have little idea where to begin in navigating a flood of information and in dealing with the peer pressure that exists in digital environments. Thinking critically is not valued in our educational testing system and our children need strong mentors and teachers and parents who can help them to be discerning.  

We know more than we have ever known about the human body, about the bio-chemical make-up of our brains, about our digestive system, respiratory system, and immune system. And yet, when we or someone we love is faced with illness, we are lost in a sea of information. A flood of possibilities surround us and information contradicts other information and there are no simple answers to the ongoing mysteries of the human body.

The spiritual crisis of the digital era leads us to want fast answers to questions that may not be answerable.

The second force that is surging today is also global. It is a global resurgence of religious tribalism – a worldview that offers fast answers.  Religious leaders, who often use the tools of the digital era, paint modernity and science as a weapon of the good. They call for a return to patriarchy and an end to all judicial systems that exist outside of the religious authorities. We see this resurgence particularly in nations whose people have seen years of government corruption and have lose their faith in pluralist, secular systems of governance.

This rise in religious extremism presents a spiritual crisis for us as well. All those who do not pledge allegiance to the leaders of these sects are labeled as illegitimate. In Muslim, Chrisitan, and Jewish circles the level of hatred between these resurgent traditionalists and all other adherents has grown. Many young Jewish people grow up today thinking that unless you are in the most anti-modern yeshivah, then you are not really practicing Judaism.

These two forces are very real and our world needs leaders who can help us to navigate them.

What is needed to navigate a global digital world?

A rabbi who understand how the digital revolution is changing the way that people are learning and socializing, but who champions the wisdom of our ancient technologies – reading, conversation, ritual, poetry and silence. 

What is needed in a world of narrow religious tribalism?

A rabbi who has great love and respect for tradition, but who is willing to balance that respect with a respect for modernity and the new ways in which we are coming to understand what it means to be human and to be in community. A rabbi who is not afraid to think critically about tradition and not afraid to be a public spokesperson who defends the Jewish people.  

A Very Kosher Christmas Poem

Jews on Christmas

There isn’t enough soy sauce in the world to feed

Jews on Christmas

Huddled around steaming plates of dumplings

Discussing cinematography

Angioplasty

Lactaid

Who has lived and who has died

Shocked to hear that the hot new Hollywood star is actually half-Jewish

(and not arguing which half)

I don’t see what all the fuss is about Nathan Englander.

Yes, it’s like The Wire, but different,

Costco is a mixed blessing,

Do you trust Yelp?

On our smartphones we subtract the Chinese year from the Jewish year to see how long the Jews had to wait to try egg drop soup. 

The laughter of Jews on Christmas

shakes the jade Buddha under the faux waterfall from his 
sleepy serenity

And for a moment, the enlightened one opens his eyes,

smiling contently as he joins us to look at pictures of relatives at Harry Potter world.

Now he’s Jewish too. 

The Moo Shu comes with little tortillas, pancakes, wraps, 
whatever you want to call them.

And we wrap up the mush of last year, with all of it’s regrets and tzuris,

And immerse into soy sauce,

a ritual bath,

three times dipped,

and we say – this is not bad.

Our highest compliment.

– Daniel S. Brenner