Union Theological Seminary NYC


Delivered by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner at Union Theological Seminary, Noon Chapel, October 20th, 2005.

The Zohar, the foremost book of Jewish mysticism, explains that the Sukkah generates such an intense concentration of spiritual energy, that the divine presence manifests itself in this fragile earthbound tent. During Sukkot we are told that the souls of the seven ancestral shepherds of Israel leave Gan Eden to partake in the divine light of the earthly festival (Zohar – Emor 103a). These transcendent guests are known as Ushpizin, the Aramaic word meaning “guests.” And we welcome
Abraham who represents love and kindness
Isaac who represents restraint and personal strength
Jacob who represents beauty and truth
Moses who represents the power of Torah
Aaron who represents empathy and receptivity to divine splendor
Joseph who represents holiness and the spiritual foundation
David who represents the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Some Sephardic Jews even have the custom of setting aside an ornately-decorated chair covered with fine cloth and holy books for these men, at a Jewish meal books belong on the table.
I should also note that since the 16th century women have also been invited for Ushpizin; According to the kabbalist Menachem Azariah, known as the Ramah of Fano, the seven female figures to be invited are: Sara, Miriam, Debora, Hanna, Abigail, Hulda and Esther.
For all of us Jews, Christians and Muslims who are spiritual descendents of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham and those who came after them, Sukkot is a time to welcome in the spirit of these ancestors. And as a Jew, I have been taught to look on these seven shepherds not as simply spiritual forbearers – but as my actual ancestors.
But what do ancestors mean to us today?
I raise this question because I believe that there is a great tension in our progressive world between identity politics with its notion of honoring indigenous peoples – people connected to a place and a land, and on some deep level to the bones of their ancestors that lie under that land – and the ideas born from international socialism that to create peace the world most go beyond borders, nationalities, tribes, and ultimately ancestry.
Does it matter if you had ancestors in a certain place? Does it grant you any claim to that place? Is it blood that links you? Color? Genes? Why does that matter? Does anyone have claim to ancestral land? And conversely – Is the erasing of ancestry simply another way in which the homogenizing dominant powers lay claim to more territorial control?
Seventeen years ago, as an idealistic college student, I was arrested in Tonopah Nevada at a nuclear test site as part of a protest I engaged in with the chief of the Western Shoshone nation. After the arrest, I returned to the campsite where I was told that there would be two drumming circles –one for members of the tribe and one for ‘friends’ of the tribe. Since I come from a rather tribal people, this did not phase me – but my friend who I had traveled with was enraged – On a hike we took the next morning he said “I come all the way out here in the middle of the desert and I get myself arrested for them and now I’m told that I have to go play drums with the White people?” He was seriously pained. That night at dinner, he approached one of the tribal elders with his broken spirit. The elder told of the trail of tears and of the chain of tradition that was passed down to him from his grandfather – and he said that on this weekend he was now passing it down to his son. My friend, and I, understood.
Another experience:
A gay couple in our community is adopting a girl from a Chinese orphanage– it was a very complicated adoption -now they want to include her in the family, to raise her as a Jewish girl and send her to Hebrew School and teach her the aleph bet. During Shabbat services we call them up to the Torah and they weep openly when she is given her Hebrew name. Her blood and ancestry have been put aside to become a daughter of Israel – and we welcome a new family member in the midst.
There is a place in my heart for both stories. Stories in which one is faithful to ancestors and stories in which someone’s ancestry is altered by the love ties of a new family.
In Judaism, much remains tribal – and I felt very much like the Shoshone chief when I circumcised my sons. But the Talmud counters with numerous examples that teach that the relationship between student and teacher is more important than son and father. And later on traditions of conversion broke down the old categories of Jew and Gentile. In the end, love, and the expansion of the family, counters blood ties.
Maybe I’m wrong, but from my outsiders perspective it seems that Christianity has a similar tension. On the one hand, the Christian scriptures go to great length to trace Jesus’ ancestry – to trace him in the line that extends back to David, our last Ushpizin guest. And yet at times Jesus himself taught that ancestry was irrelevant – Jew or Greek – he saw all people as born of Adam and Eve – a deeply humanist teaching.
I am one of those people who is very wary of saying that we live in an unprecedented time – the Torah has it right – there is nothing new under the sun – but we do live in the first era of human existence when the biological child of one couple can be birthed into the world by any woman on the planet capable of childbearing. In the last decade, scientific advancements have trumped the ancestral cycle. And at the same time, science is making clear that genetic history – inheriting our ancestors genes – makes a huge contribution to our levels of depression, susceptibility to addiction and disease, and general abilities. Ancestry matters and does not matter more than it ever did.
So is there room for ushpizin – this ritual of recalling biblical ancestors? Or must it be discarded as too exclusivist and tribal or be universalized beyond the Abraham and Sarahs to include all peoples?
Allow me one excursion into theory – One way out of questions of blood and history is by saying that both collective narratives – tribal and universal – are impossible. There is no one definitive story of Morningside Heights, there are stories of Morningside Heights. There is no white people or black people or even man or woman. Post-Modernity privileges the personal and the biographical and relegates the tribal, universal and gendered to constructs – they are reduced to semiotic metaphors or reflections of the inner psyche.
In ancient times, the exact opposite was true – when we were in need of healing, we called on the merit of an ancestor who bravely faced illness to heal us – when we were powerless, we recalled their triumphs, when we were downtrodden, we remembered their joy. Our lives were simply one generation in a great chain that stretched back to the beginning of the tribe.
As moderns, we begin our adult lives by breaking away from ancestors – critiquing the patriarchy, distancing ourselves from mistakes made by earlier generations – we are to be self-made and self-reliant. And while there is much healing in the freedom that we have been granted with individualization, there is a loss – an empty space where ancestors once spoke to us – and urged us to be righteous, patient, brave.
When I became a parent seven years ago, and I bought life insurance – I began to think that some day, God-willing, I will inevitably be an ancestor. And it crossed my mind that I wanted my sons and daughter to tell the story of my particular family– to say that their ancestors were exiled from the Holy Land, fled to Iraq, to Spain, to Holland, and to Poland, to New York City, and to wherever it is that I’ll rest my bones. And even though I want them to reject the negative traits they inherit, I want them to be able to call on the merit of their great grandmother, and be sustained by her inner strength to overcome poverty and disease. I want them to know her story about getting a college scholarship but not being able to afford the bus fare to school. I want them to feel a sense of obligation to their ancestors.
For me, welcoming Biblical ancestors into the sukkah this week is a way to acknowledge the chain that I have descended from and to draw on the spiritual qualities they possessed. It is a way to say that I am not self-made – but rather a product of many generations who have asked me to carry on their story. Yet like the sukkahs open walls and roof, I am reminded that there is permeability even in connections to ancestry.
And so I end with a story.

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz loved books – he read everything available and at a young age was considered a great master. After he got married, people began to stop by his tiny shack and interrupt his Torah study with questions – a line formed out his door. He was overwhelmed – how could he turn them away? Yet they were ruining his spiritual life. He turned to his wife who gave him raw onions to eat. But the people did not care – they wanted answers. Then he turned to God –and he said “Please – I do not want people to be attracted to me!” The next day he walked in the streets to the market and everyone averted their eyes. Noone came to his door. He could not have been happier – he studied til late in the night.
Months passed, and soon it was sukkot. Pinchas did not have the tools to build a sukkah. He had to send his wife to borrow some- and she returned and they built a modest hut.
They began their ushpizin and Abraham appeared at the tent’s opening. “Come in!” Rabbi Pinchas motioned to the spirit. Abraham did not come in. “Please, come in!’ he said. Abraham did not budge. “What is it?” Pinchas says. “There are no guests at this table. How can the spirit of loving-kindness enter into such a sukkah?”

Pinchas was distraught. He called out to God to erase his former request and he ran to the market to ask if any of the beggars needed a meal.

The story’s parable is compelling –

There can be no encounter with ancestors unless there is a genuine attitude in this life that welcomes in those who are our neighbors – even those who annoy us. The merit of the ancestors only comes when we enact the principle of hospitality and openness in our lives here and now.

Let this sukkah be a symbol for our hearts this season, open to the sky, and open to the stranger who might walk through the door. May we rush to provide an empty seat for the ushpizin.

Rensellearville Church, NY

Spiritual Activism: From Moses to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song

Rabbi Daniel Brenner

I begin with a story:

The Parable of the Two Scrolls:

A traveler walks down a path holding a scroll of paper in each hand. Every few minutes, the traveler stops along the way and unrolls one of the scrolls.

“The whole world was created for me.” reads the first scroll.

After reading this message, the traveler walks with pride, taking long strides on the journey, enjoying each step, paying little attention to the world as it passes by.

After a while the traveler stops and unrolls the scroll in the other hand

“I am from dust and will return to dust!” it reads.

Suddenly the traveler begins to shuffle along the road in a state of despair, head hanging to the ground, despondent until the next time that the scroll in the other hand is read.

This Chassidic tale is often recalled during the month of reflection that precedes the Jewish High Holidays. Life, we are told by this teaching, is a delicate balancing act between two truths. Hope and despair are those two truths and they are always present.

Today, many political theorists are talking about two truths as well. Two Harvard professors are at the center of this debate. One, Francis Fukuyama, has argued that globalization and the rise of the digital market will eventually create a peaceful world with one language and one culture. The other, Samuel Huntington, has argued that a violent clash of civilizations is upon us – most notably between Islam and the West. In short, these visions predict either a world that is populated by those who wish to forget the past in the name of peace or by those who wish to fight to recreate the glory of the past.

Are either of these predictions proving to be accurate?

While it may seem that the clash is upon us, I want to suggest that in some ways both men are right. We are moving towards a global village and we are more interconnected than we have ever been. Education of millions is now happening via online resources. More young girls are learning than ever before. These could be hopeful signs. Yet, we also live with the images of 9/11 and images of the numerous attacks against Americans and other Westerners who are aid workers, journalists, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Who perpetrates these attacks?

In most cases, they are carried out not by those who are directly oppressed under the economic conditions dictated by the West on Arab nations – but those Arab students who can afford to come to the West to seek education and fortune. Sadly, many of them end up feeling more and more alienated from both their ancestral land and the modern world.

The root of the attacks is not Islam or the Quran – but the conflicted soul that rages towards the West (a rage that has been building since the colonial era) and desires the West (for individual autonomy, technology, and political freedom)

That conflict, in a digital world, becomes the impetus for a media spectacle of violence.

So how do we address this conflicted soul? How do we address the alienation that is at the heart of the transition from the local to global village?

We do not have to go to the apartment blocks of Paris, Manchester or Hamburg to see Muslims making the difficult transition from local to global village. They are also here in our midst. And when I have spoken with them, I understand how vulnerable they feel.

Since 1965, America has undergone a radical change in religious diversity that Professor Diane Eck has titled the “New Religious America.” It is an America that includes Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and more. It is an America that is a microcosm of the world’s religions – and a place in which new forms of those religions are blossoming.

And while America may have not received as much public attention as France has with ‘headscarf crimes’, America is facing a similar challenge of diversity. So we must ask a historical question:

How did America respond to the first wave of immigration that brought religious diversity to these shores– the wave between 1880- and 1920?

While it took nearly three decades for Jews and Catholics to feel accepted in America, we have countless of righteous Protestants to thank for making this nation a welcoming one for religious difference. In 1927, when the National Conference of Christians and Jews began with one Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish leader, it sent a message that this nation was one which not only tolerated, but found strength in diversity. John F. Kennedy’s presidency was historic, as was Joseph Leiberman’s candidacy. And these events could not have happened without thousands of local events like this one here today.

For Jews, finding acceptance in America was not only vital in the 1920s, but was especially salient after the horrors visited on our people in Europe during World War II. Jews not only came to see America as a refuge, but to call it home. I grew up with the U.S. Army issue Passover Haggadah that my father used as a G.I.

The same efforts that Protestants pushed forward in solidifying this nation as a Judeo-Christian one must now be advanced to widen the tent. And while I hope that both polytheists (like Hindus) and non-theists (like Buddhists) will be included around the table, it is our fellow monotheists, Muslims, that we must reach out to at this hour.

But bringing them to the table is only the first step. The real question regarding diversity is not simply who we can gather around the table, but what can we accomplish together. Jews, Protestants and Catholics came together and played a major role in healing the nation’s racism and establishing civil rights. Today there is a new set of issues to tackle. So where should we begin? We might draw on some spiritual resources.

In the Book of Exodus, the young Moses “Goes out to see his brethren” – The Midrash, the collection of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, asks “what did he see?”

He saw the burdens of the young on the backs of the old and the burdens of the old on the backs of the young. He saw the burdens of women on men and men on women.

So how did he respond?

Moses began to shift the burdens, running back and forth. He hoped that Pharoah would be pleased, seeing how much more efficient the work had become. But Pharoah forbid him from interfering. It was then that Moses knew that he would have to stand up to Pharoah.

Today we live in a nation in which our collective burdens are being carried by those whose voices of anguish go unheard. Rather than create a society in which there is a chicken in every pot, we have created a gap between rich and poor that has grown larger each year. Fewer people have health insurance – and even those who have it cannot afford decent health care. And there are thousands of workers in this country – men who work the fields among the pesticides, women who are held in captivity and exploited sexually– who are carrying unjust burdens. It is appalling to me that a Wal-mart janitorial employee from Poland was forced to work 364 days a year, twelve hour shifts and denied medical care when she had a work related accident.

Of course we will not change our society overnight, but the one thing that we can change is our minds.

Bob Marley sang:

Emancipate yourselves from inner slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds/have no fear for atomic energy / none of them can stop the time/ how long will we kill our prophets/ while they stand aside a look/ we’ve got to take part in it/ got to fulfill the book/ redemption song/this song of freedom/ all I ever had

We can change our minds – and through the electoral process we have the ability to change the policies that impact our nation’s most vulnerable. It is said that the worst part of Egyptian slavery was that the Hebrews had given up hope that they would ever be anything other than slaves. But we should not lose hope that it is possible to create a compassionate and caring society. We can shift the energy we have used to become the world’s military superpower to address the AIDS crisis, environmental crisis, and the desperate need for education.

We carry two scrolls with us. One scroll that gives us hope and one that instills despair.

Today, let us look at the new religious diversity in America as a sign of hope. It will take much work, but we can utilize this diversity to touch the lives of people in every nation. Let us dedicate ourselves to building a wide tent, in which all can rest safely and find nourishment. And let that tent be an inspiration for all our fellow travelers on planet earth.

Holocaust Educator’s Conference, Museum of Jewish Heritage

Remarks I made at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

At the Holocaust Educators Conference, Summer, 2003:

Earlier today, we heard from both David Weiss Halivni and Neil Gilman, both of whom expressed their concern that the holocaust is fading into irrelevance. They both lamented the fact that the holocaust is becoming a chapter in history devoid of the emotions of rage and horror that it once held. Perhaps the presentation by Annette Insdorf who chronicled the rise in holocaust related film has caused you to think twice about their assertions. I’ll be looking at popular teen culture and the holocaust, and asking some similar questions.

I speak before this conference not only as an educator who speaks on the holocaust, but as a product of holocaust education. When I was nine years old I watched The Holocaust tv miniseries starring Meryl Streep. At ten I held a yellow candle and commemorated Yom HaShoah in my Jewish Day School. At eleven I saw the play the Diary of Anne Frank. At twelve my Bar Mitzvah tutor was a refuge who told me tales of Hitler’s rise to power. At thirteen I watched Hogan’s Heroes re-runs. At fourteen I read Night. At fifteen I went on a teen trip which included a visit to Yad Vashem. At sixteen I watched all ten hours of the film Shoah. At seventeen I killed virtual Nazis in the video game Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. At eighteen I read Maus. At nineteen I went to Germany.

In addition to having a strong holocaust education in Jewish day school, I also had a strong informal holocaust education – from that Castle Wolfenstien game, Hogan’s Heroes, and from bands like the Dead Kennedys who sang Nazi Punks F*ck Off!

That informal education taught me that Nazis were the stand-in or evil not only in Jewish circles, but in popular culture — which affirmed that hating Nazis was still relevant, some forty years after their rise and fall. The fact that the holocaust was on TV mattered, as did the fact that I would find video games whose aim was to destroy Nazis at the homes of my non-Jewish friends.

As a product of day school and now as a parent of Jewish day school children I am aware of the strong pull that popular culture has on the hearts and minds of young people.

What message is popular culture putting out to teenagers today? Do the students we teach get the ideas put forward in the classroom affirmed by popular culture or dismissed? Is the Holocaust still relevant? Are Nazis still the stand in for evil? Should they be? How can we, as educators, get students to think critically about the messages that pop culture conveys?

Before I speak on the status of the Shoah in popular culture today, I want to address what I see as an important evolution over the last decade that has shaped what we as educators should be looking for when we ask questions about popular culture. In the 1920s film overtook the theatre as the most popular entertainment venue. By the 1960s televisions pushed aside radios in most American homes. My generation has gone through three such revolutions in media – cable television knocking aside network, the internet replacing encyclopedias and countless other resources and threatening libraries, and most importantly for the purposes of this forum, video games which have not only diminished the sale of board games, but are slowly beginning to rival the television. Today, the average teenager spends 35 hours per week in front of some sort of screen with around 25 hours devoted to television and movies and ten on the computer or gaming console. This is roughly comparable to the number of hours that a student will spend in a classroom.

So when I’m looking at popular culture and the role it plays in the life of teens in particular, I’m not just going to look at the traditional – the top grossing movies, the top neilsen rated tv shows, and the billboard top 10 but rather at the emergent and in particular, the digital revolution. 64% of teenagers play at least one hour of video games per day. Boys generally spend between 10-15 hours per week playing video games. And the experience of playing a game is a new paradigm that we should not overlook. Dr. Sherry Turkle, the leading expert on video game culture (who just happens to be a Jewish mother) writes –

When you play a video game you enter into the world of the programmers who made it. You have to do more than identify with a character on the screen. You must act for it. Identification through action has a special kind of hold. Like playing a sport, it puts people into a focused, and highly charged state of mind. For many people, what is being pursued in the video game is not just a score, but an altered state (83). – Sherry Turkle

What really defines teen popular culture? Hybrids. All four of the popular culture items that I will be presenting are entertainment industry hybrids. One is a comic book that became a movie, another a movie theme song that became a video, one a cartoon that became a movie, and another a movie that spawned a video game.

I’ll begin with a comic book that became a movie.

X-Men opening scene (problematizing the survivor)

Madonna Die Another Day (non-Jews identifying with Jews)

South Park- the Movie: Canadians sent to Death Camps

(Holocaust as metaphor for persecution in comedy)

South Park is consistently number one or two on the cable ratings chart, and it has made cable history by beating out the major networks for the 10 pm time slot. It is seen by 46 million people each week. The film grossed over 50 million dollars in theatre release.

Playstation: Medal of Honor Underground (virtual reenactment)

(These were followed by an open discussion concerning the media)

So what do these various forms of media popular with teens tell us? In some ways they are frightening. They show us how the holocaust has become a “myth” — a narrative of evil co-opted by superheroes, cartoons, and pop divas. They also show us how gamers fantasize about the holocaust — particularly the Medal of Honor Underground footage in which one must join the French Resistance. Soon, I imagine, gamers will be liberating the concentration camps (they are already liberating American POW camps and escaping from them – see the game Prisoner of War) and perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not far from Playstation 2.

But the one thing for sure that they tell us is that the holocaust has not faded into irrevelance. Far from it — the holocaust, nearly sixty years later, has become one of the most intriguing stories for teenagers. What should we do in a world where teens are blasting Nazis in cyberspace? Our role as educators is to get them to think critically about the portals they have chosen to enter, and then to lead them to the source material – the personal accounts, historical archives, etc. Once they are there, they will create their own literature, theology, and theater – and in doing so, they will keep alive the flame of memory that honors the lives of both those who died and those who survived.

Revelation – Community-Wide Shavuot Keynote, Shomrei Emunah, Montclair, New Jersey

Revelation and its Discontents

By Daniel S. Brenner

A sign I saw while taking a shabbes walk read:

Hear God’s Word.

Be God’s Voice.

God is still speaking.

-First Church of Christ

The sign made me think of the Sunday mornings of my youth.

Growing up as I did, a Jew boy in North Carolina, a gefilte fish out of water, Sunday morning was about as exciting as watching paint dry. All my neighborhood friends were at church, and that left me sitting at home, feeling alone, curled up in front of the television. And what, might you imagine was on said television set in the years before cable came to Charlotte? Church. Lots of church. And the more I watched, the more I fell in love with Jimmy Swaggart sweating into his hanky, Ernest Angeley healing the deaf with the words “Baby Jesus” – pronounced deep South slow motion of course – and our local show, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and their Praise the Lord Church complete with gold plated bath fixtures. These evangelists referred to their broadcasts as an experience of revelation, in which “God’s Word” or “God’s Truth” or “God’s message for you” was miraculously beamed into your living room. I couldn’t help but be enthralled by their televised drama of passion, salvation, and transformation each week.

But I was skeptical. I was skeptical because every fifteen minutes these preachers threw a phone number up on the screen to raise money for their ministry. I was also skeptical because to me the whole gospel seemed like one big circular argument gone hay-wire. Why did I need Jesus? Because without Jesus I was damned to hell. How do we know this? Because Jesus said so. And so on and so on. I found the whole thing to be rather shallow. But I was deeply jealous of these women and men and their personal direct line connection to God. For them it was a local call.

Us Jewish folk might have mumbled a few prayers to God, but we certainly didn’t talk about God’s word as being personally meaningful, or feel God’s presence transforming our lives. God’s word had much more to do with not shaking parmesan cheese on a chicken cutlet. You’d start to shake and then an angel would call out “hold back your hand, spare the child” – wait that’s the wrong story. But you get the point. In the local Jewish day school I didn’t learn that God “revealed” his word to us, but that God “gave” a book to our ancestors and in doing so “commanded” us. They also said that all this happened a long time ago, years before the first Jews lived in Brooklyn.

So I was jealous of the evangelicals, to whom God’s word was alive and revealed from the pulpit. The Torah in comparison was an incomprehensible family heirloom, read by an eighty year old man who stooped and smelled of stale milk. No wonder I wanted God’s word to be fresh from the Creator and slipping off my

tongue.

I think this divide was enforced by the centrality of the Torah scroll itself in the synagogue- The scroll is the oldest material object in most Jewish communities and it is often adorned with velvet fabric and placed in a fancy wood carved closet. As a result, God’s message seems somewhat outdated, like a guide to Soviet politics or an operation manual for a manual typewriter. This sense left me with a desire for some experience in which Torah was alive.

While attending RRC, though, a place which was alive with Jewish communal feeling and spiritual vibrancy, most of the Torah learning I did made the Torah even more dead than it already was. Identifying propretonic syllables didn’t thrill me. The minutiae of grammatical analysis that I was trained to perform on each word became spiritually nullifying. Learning the documentary hypothesis approach put me in a funk about priestly conspiracies and historical revisionism. In other classes the feminist critique against the patriarchy sunk in and by that time I was looking for inspiration in novels, not Torah. Even in my last year, when we did some fun postmodern literary criticism on the text, it ended up as a identity politics game with little relevance outside its quarters. Torah was a central text – but it was more often a punching bag than a love seat.

I think about the words on that sign and ask: Should Jews be trying to Hear God’s Word? Speak God’s Voice? Do we still think that God is speaking?

In the past two years, as part of my work at CLAL the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in Manhttan I have asked this question as a teacher of rabbinical students from the diverse seminaries that make up American Jewish life.

Of all the things I do, directing the internship – a group of sixteen exceptional senior students from Yeshiva university, JTS, HUC, AJR, RRC, Chovevi Torah – is the most challenging and engaging part of my week. I am blessed to work with David Kramer, the professor of Talmud at JTS as my colleague and each week we lead a two hour seminar for the students that teaches them to think beyond the specific movements they are immersed in.

You have to imagine the first day that we meet together as a group. The guys from Yeshiva University come in wearing nice Dockers slacks, starched button down shirts, briefcases with shoulder straps, and they do a lot of nervous twitching – the knee bouncing under the table kind. The liberal Jews, including many women studying for the rabbinate, walk in with backpacks and mocha lattes and try to use lots of Hebrew phrases to sound rabbinic. For many of these liberal students it is the first time they have ever spent more than a few minutes in conversation with an Orthodox Jew.

For the first two months, everybody is extremely nice. People look one another in the eye when they speak and smile or nod appreciatively like they work in customer service. “oh yes I understand” they say to each other. They tell their stories and why they are becoming rabbis, and then at some point, David and I ask people to talk a bit about God, Moses, and what went down at Sinai. And this is when all hell breaks loose.

The Orthodox say:

Accepting the Torah on Sinai is the essence of being a Jew. If I didn’t believe that God gave us the Torah at Sinai, there would be no point. It is from Sinai that we are commanded, and challenged to be disciplined enough to put words into action. Sinai is at the core of who I am.

The Progressives say:

Well I understand Sinai to be a metaphor – but to think that an infinite God wrote this book… that is ridiculous. God is not a writer with a Smith-Corona on high typing away. Humans wrote the Torah. It is a historical document. But we are guided by the ideals, the desire for a just society, for a holy community.

But there are competing ideas about what justice and holiness mean. Do you follow Torah or just the consensus of the psychologists, physicians and others who you see as God? Why not follow the Upanishads or the Rig-Veda or the Tibetan Book of the Dead – they might be closer to your ideas about ethics

or equality?

The Torah is the book of my ancestors as much as it is of yours – I will not let you own it or be the sole authority for what it means.

But you don’t want to have any authority – you think the Torah is all a metaphor and you want each person to have the freedom to pick and choose what they want to follow anyway.

You doctrine guided Robot.

You lazy traitor to your heritage.

You can see how this can spin out of control. And see how the tension is once again between a Torah that is a relic – old and living on life support – and a Torah that never was really alive to begin with.

So I have to ask a question that goes beyond the question “What happened at Sinai?”

And that question is – Why do we need the Torah anyway?

Not only why do Jews need it, by why does anyone need it?

This may sound like the question of a heretic – of the wicked son from the Passover seder – but in fact, our own Jewish sources have long hinted at this question.

Take the following from the Talmud

If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned from the ant not to rob, from the dove not to commit adultery, from the cat to be modest, and from the rooster to have good manners. (Erubin 100b)

Just think how much could be learned from dolphins, horses or ferrets. Ok, forget the ferrets.

But that text in peanuts compared to the following Midrash – which if you listen carefully is cleverly crafted:

A few days before Shavuot, Moses gathered the Elders together and said:

“These are the words which God will soon wish to command. Do you favor adopting them?”

They answered: “Why not? Haven’t our fathers already adopted these rules of conduct before us? Jacob accepted God and removed idols. Joseph did not swear using God’s name, and he prepared a Shabbat table. Isaac honored his father and made no protest when led to the sacrifice. Judah opposed killing Joseph. Joseph opposed adultery. Judah identified before his father the bloody shirt of

Joseph and did not lie. Abraham refused to steal from Sodom. We shall be just as eager to accept God’s words as were our fathers. (Pesikta Hahadash, Otzer Midrashim 489)

Did you pick up on the reference? In this text they go through each of the ten commandments and tell God “Been there! Done that!”

So the conclusion seems to be that Torah was not necessary at all. Humans were already on the right path. The Torah just acted as a good PR message for what the patriarchs had already figured out. It was a pedagogic tool – later on Saadia Ga’on and Maimonidies would affirm this same idea. But like all PR campaigns, once they’ve been through the spin cycle, the buzz wears off. So after Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau, Locke,

Jefferson and Marx , Torah faded away. And while Rabbis have tried to stretch their interpretations and make it relevant the enlightenment is one tough contender. You want to bring more justice in the world? Study law or politics. Want to heal the sick? Study biology or chemistry. Studying Torah? That’s good for the weekend.

Richard Rorty, a philosopher at Stanford who happens to be a great defender of post-modernism has put it this way -Humanity has been through three major phases. Monotheism, in which religion offers hope through entering a covenant with a supremely powerful non-human. Philosophy, in which a set of beliefs tell us what is true about the world we live in, and literary culture – which does not care about What is True but about “What is new?”

When I think of my own family, and the attitudes of my Grandfather who was born in Poland in 1899 and remained a devout Jew, my father born in the Bronx in 1932 who left the fold when he discovered philosophy, and me, born in North Carolina in 1969 who prefers Babel over Hegel, we have evolved through these intellectual stages in the span of three generations.

Rorty sees these phases as evolutionary. Kant leveled Religion. Kirkegard leveled Kant. And now we are waiting for someone to level him.

This returns me to my initial question about Torah being alive. Maybe at one time in human evolution Torah was alive, back when people were slaughtering children to appease Molech, and the insights of Torah were necessary for humanity to move forward, but we do not need it anymore – especially in the ways we once did. We should reconcile ourselves with the fact that the Torah is a history book. It should be treated with respect, read aloud, and given a special place in our community– but not understood to be the actual words of an invisible God.

But wait one cotton-pickin’ minute! What if something about the Torah, about Sinai, about the revelation – is truly unique, and what if there is something more to Torah than simply the words, something beyond the surface content of the Torah. The voice of the mystic speaks – as I’ve read from the 13th century kabbalistic text the Zohar:

“Wo unto the man,” says Simeon bar Yohai, “who asserts that this Torah intends to relate only commonplace things and secular narratives; for if this were so, then in the present times likewise a Torah might be written with more attractive narratives. In truth, however, the matter is thus: The upper world and the lower are established upon one and the same principle; in the lower world

is Israel, in the upper world are the angels. When the angels wish to descend to the lower world, they have to don earthly garments. It this be true of the angels, how much more so of the Torah, for whose sake, indeed, the world and the angels were alike created and exist. The world could simply not have endured

to look upon it. Now the narratives of the Torah are its garments. He who thinks that these garments are the Torah itself deserves to perish and have no share in the world to come. Woe unto the fools who look no further when they see an elegant robe! More valuable than the garment is the body which carries it, and more valuable even than that is the soul which animates the body. Fools

see only the garment of the Torah, the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul, its proper being; and in the Messianic time the ‘upper soul’ of the Torah will stand revealed”

For people like me, who love to study Torah, who love to engage in each word and letter and read it again an again every year of our lives, each week hoping for a new insight – the Zohar’s message is loud and clear. Sure I read the New Yorker – in fact I read it each week – especially the fiction and movie reviews – but I sure wouldn’t want to be stuck on a desert Island for ten years with a stack of one hundred New Yorkers. But stick me there with the Torah and I’ll read it again and again and again. As the Talmudic rabbis said – Turn it Turn it for all is in it.

The Zohar has a parable about the pleasure of Torah study that takes this idea even further.

“The man who is not acquainted with the mystical books is like the savage barbarian who was a stranger to the usages of civilized life. He sowed wheat, but was accustomed to partake of it only in its natural condition.

One day this barbarian came into a city, and good bread was placed before him. Finding it very palatable, he inquired of what material it was made, and was informed that it was made of wheat. Afterward one offered to him a fine cake kneaded in oil. He tasted it, and again asked: ‘And this, of what is it made?’

and he received the same answer, of wheat. Finally, one placed before him the royal pastry, kneaded with oil and honey. He again asked the same question, to which he obtained a like reply. Then he said: ‘At my house I am in possession of all these things. I partake daily of them in root, and cultivate the

wheat from which they are made.’ In this crudeness he remained a stranger to the delights one draws from the wheat, and the pleasures were lost to him. It is the same with those who stop at the general principles of knowledge because they

are ignorant of the delights which one may derive from the further

investigation and application of these principles.”

What I learn from this passage of Zohar is that it is not simply the content of Torah that is important. To experience Torah is to know the appreciation of each of the baked goodies – it is not simply intellectual, it is appreciating the simple pleasures -good bread, the luxuries – cake, and the spiritual ones – the pastry.

What does it really mean to experience Torah in this way?

To do so, you have to go back and imagine yourself at the foot of Mount Sinai:

And it came to pass on the third day the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace; and the whole mount quaked greatly. (Exodus 19:16ff)

Sinai was an experience of incredible visual and audible stimulation – dream-like in its intensity. The trembling and quaking are signs of a heightened awareness of connection to the natural world. This experience was so powerful that a Midrash says:

When God uttered the first of the ten Divine words on Sinai, the souls of the people suddenly fled from them. The Torah then rushed back to God and said: “Master of the World, have you given me to the living or to the dead?” “To the living, of course!” God replied. “But they are all dead, ” the Torah said; “they look as if they are alive but their souls have run away from them.”

Shemot Rabbah 39:3

This is what we call today an out-of-body experience. Both Emile Fackenheim and Jacques Derrida speak of revelation as that sense of feeling utter surprise – total wonder at the world – a world you are seeing for the first time as if your soul just kicked in.

Shavuot is about those Sinai experiences – those moments when in a particular place you glimpse not only what is before you, but the big picture. You are, in a sense, reborn, as your soul leaves you and then returns and not only do you see the big picture, but you feel inter-connected to others, as the 12th century French Jewish sage Rashi says that at Sinai the Hebrews stood “as one person, with one heart”

When have you seen the world anew? What are the revelatory moments of your life? When have you felt connected to life in such a way? That is the question for Shavuot.

Once I stared down at the garbage below the Chicago L and saw in it an exquisite mosaic about the anguish and hope of the city.

Once I was walking through a charred section of forest after a fire and I felt like each tree was the hair on a nearly bald man’s head and the entire earth has alive.

On the night I stood in a parking lot in Jerusalem and proposed to my wife and she said yes, and the world was awash in love and faith.

Holding my premature, newborn sons in the hospital, singing a prayer of protection, I could sense my voice lifted up by a great chorus of every parent on the planet, throughout history.

Walking at Eagle Rock, a New Jersey overlook with a beautiful view of New York City on the anniversary of 9-11 looking down from that mountain, into a pit on that Island below – sensing a great circle of grief ringing out like rippling water to encompass the world.

These are all moments when I glimpsed the bigger picture, if only for a second. The connections between all those separate things that we work so hard to define and detach. And I felt in my heart beat the beat of humanity, of the planet, of the cosmos of the ultimate Source of Life.

How do we reconnect to Sinai? We open ourselves up to the signs.

The 18th century mystic the Baal Shem Tov writes:

What is the purpose of the heavenly voice that is transmitted from Sinai each day? The voice that goes forth from above does not reach the physical ear of man. “There is no speech, there are no words, the voice is not heard.” It is uttered not in sounds but in thoughts, in signs man must learn to perceive. Every day he who is worthy receives the Torah standing at Sinai.

That is what standing again at Sinai is all about. And then, drawing on those moments to affirm our ethical mission in the world. Franz Rosensweig, the great German Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century wrote that the difference between law and commandment is that you only feel commanded after an experience where you feel love.

Remembering when I sensed the forest to be connected to the earth’s health– I am deeply disturbed by an administration that advocates the deforestation of our national parks. Sitting in that hospital surrounded by fragile newborns I want to see universal access to health care. Grieving on the anniversary of 9/11 I want to advance diplomatic means of conflict resolution whenever possible.

Why do we need Torah?

Torah – and the story of Sinai is vital to how we understand ourselves as humans. It is religion, philosophy, and literature synthesized in a brilliant and cogent text. It tells us that while knowledge comes from reason, it can also come from someplace beyond the self. And that knowledge is useless unless it is applied to repairing the world in some way.

So, did a bunch of guys write the Torah for a particular historical era or did it come to Moses in a divine vision? I don’t think that I have to decide on an answer. Because for me, Torah is a recurring dream. Like other dreams, it has disturbing parts and incomprehensible parts and beautiful parts and moving parts.

So I don’t just want to analyze the myths or the metaphors from Sinai – I want to enter into the dream – to feel firsthand the experience of a trembling in the bones, see the fire and smoke, take in the signs, hear the voice spoken in the language most intimate to me, and to walk away with a renewed sense of purpose.

So – Do Jews hear God’s voice and speak God’s word?

The early 18th century Italian Jewish mystic Moshe Chaim Luzzato said about the ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit –

Occasionally an inspiration is transmitted to the heart of man which provides him with the essential understanding of a specific matter without the recipient sensing the source of it. It comes to him in the same way that a thought suddenly pops into one’s mind.

(Moshe Chaiym Luzzato (RAMCHAL) from With an Eye on Eternity trans. Lebovits and Rosen)

We do hear God’s word. Not by simply hearing the Torah chanted, by tuning in to the signal that reveals the great inter-connections and higher purposes that motivate us. It is a signal that is hard to pick up. It lies somewhere between Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh and all the other voices of mockery and ridicule looking to make a fast buck. But the signal is out there. It has been there from the beginning.

Revelation and it’s Discontents

God’s sweet lips whispering into Moses’ sunburned ears saying –

“Put away those false idols baby, I’ll be your one and only. Me, just me, I’ll be the world for you.”

“oh, that sounds sooooo good” a reply that echoed down the mountain to the six hundred thousand souls who were watching the fireworks above. And they shout: Halleluyah!

Young men leaping, women spinning with their arms spread up towards the heavens, children skipping…even the old folks were shaking their rear ends with joy.

Better than any “I do” ever uttered under a wedding canopy this was – and now the Holy Blessed One and this rag-tag extended family of Hebrews are going into partnership, the Jewish people incorporated from now and for all time, seal

that covenant baby! We’re ready to make the big commitment!

Now we know what that meant. Forty centuries of kvetching and shleping, oppression and indigestion, wandering the globe and landing up in places like Frankfurt, Fez, Fustadt, Fresno. It wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

I can feel the wind, still. The wind as we stood under that mountain. I can close my eyes and remember that moment and feel the tingle of the eternal yes humming in my bones. I lift my arms to the heavens and say

turn on the water.