Turks and Jews in the Jersey Burbs

By Daniel S. Brenner

When I hear something awful, like the news that an 85-year-old grandmother and her 8-year-old granddaughter are murdered by a terrorist along with twenty-six others in a blast in Istanbul, I deal with my emotional turmoil by doing something mindless and useful – like raking leaves.

I was raking the last leaves of autumn from my front yard in Montclair on Sunday morning, trying to take my mind off the thought that synagogues are prime targets for explosives when Evrim came walking up to me. I stopped the rake and turned his direction to wave hello, but before I could get a word out I saw the tears welled up in his eyes.

“Did you hear the news?” he said.

Evrim is my tenant- for the last two years he has lived in the third floor apartment above my house while finishing his MBA. We rarely speak, other than “Is the apartment too hot/ too cold?” and he’s quiet and works late. So I have to say that this was the first time I’ve ever seen him emotional like this, his face carrying the news of tragedy.

I nodded in his direction. “I heard the news.” I said, “so sad.”

Evrim is a Turk and a Muslim. After completing school in Istanbul he came to the U.S. to do graduate work. It was right after 9/11, and he had a hard time finding an apartment. He pleaded with me to read his two letters of recommendation from his professors. I made a phone call to his advisor to make sure they were legitimate. I made out a lease.

“I had to come and talk to you, ” he said, “because it is so sad to me. All morning I’ve been asking myself – ‘How can a religious person destroy a synagogue?'”

“I don’t know,” I said.

We stood together, chilled by the cool breeze in the air, and we spoke.

I spoke of one of my classmates during my time living in Jerusalem, a young woman who was killed by a terrorist while taking a nature hike. He spoke of his father, a teacher who was imprisoned for speaking out against the government’s persecution of Kurds. We talked of how the world has changed since the Cold War, and where we thought the world was heading now that Islamic extremists are expanding their attack strategy. We stood, a Jew and a Turk in the Jersey Burbs, sharing our histories and sorrows.

“I don’t know how it will end.” Evrim said, “but I just know that it is terrible what the Jewish people are going through.”

“Thanks, Evrim.” I said, and I went back to raking.

Late Sunday night, I click on the radio on the top of the frig as I clean up after the kids. I hear that many Turks have come out to the two bombed out synagogues and are holding a vigil. They say that they stand with the Jews. I’d like to think that after such a heinous act – the destruction of families as they are taking part in a religious celebration – that not only Turkish Muslims, but Muslims around the world will grieve, and lift up their voices in disgust. I’m not naïve – I know that there are those who cheer every time a Jew is murdered, but it is a comfort to know that there are those whose hearts ache at such atrocities. One of them happens to be living above me. For this I am grateful.

The Unexpected Return

Goyische Mazel for One Yiddische Kup

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

In 5763 I worked in an office of orthodox rabbis who quoted Talmudic tractates and ate microwaved knishes. In 5764 I’ll be spending my days with Presbyterian ministers who quote John Calvin and eat cold shrimp salads. No, I haven’t found Jesus, or tasted shrimp, but after six years on the faculty of CLAL I’ve left to become the first rabbi to direct the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Auburn has strong Presbyterian roots, and my father-in-law jokes that I am “America’s first Presbyterian Rabbi”. Ugh. During the first week of my new gig, under the watchful eyes of the gargoyles peering down at me from atop Riverside Church I hung up a print of Tzfat sculptor Mike Leaf’s masterpiece “the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Bob Dylan, and the Mosiach on Harleys”. It was my way of claiming a bit of turf. I’m not sure what they think of it.

I imagine that for most rabbis the thought of working as an agent of a Protestant seminary would sound like a bizarre and ironic career choice, but for me this position is sort of a homecoming. As a son of the South I grew up in the Presbyterian stronghold of Charlotte, North Carolina – home not only to a large and thriving Presbyterian community but a Presbyterian hospital and college as well. My best friend in junior high and high school was Dwight Thomas Bridges III, a Presbyterian.

But still, there is something uncomfortable about a being a rabbi and working within the seminary of another religious tradition. The first time that I visited Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who teaches World Religions at a Buddhist university, I was a little freaked by the Buddhist icons and idols around campus and the constant bowing, to the idols and to teachers, that marked Naropa University’s spiritual approach. I knew that for every pioneer like Reb Zalman, there were many who turned in the other direction. When my best friend from college, a Jewish guy from an affluent White suburb, became a baal t’shuvah he confided in me that he had completely broken his ties with his non-Jewish friends. His rabbi had explained that we should not be fooled by gestures of goodwill – that the entire world was still out to get us, and that the Passover Haggadah’s words “in every generation they stand against us to wipe us out” are as true today as they ever were. I was very disturbed to think that my friend had abandoned the idea that there would be peaceful relations between Jews and any of the other peoples that inhabit the planet, and I vowed that I would always maintain my deep ties of friendship to people outside the Jewish community.

I had no idea how hard it would be to keep that vow. Ever since I entered rabbinical school my world has become increasingly monocultural each year. The three friendships from college with non-Jews that I tried to maintain were stretched thin as I immersed myself in Jewish life. In their place I met many new Jewish friends and once I got my family multiplying (My sweetheart Lisa and I are blessed with three little ones) I found myself gravitating to Jewish families and forming a chavurah. In our new home we had some Christian neighbors but only once did we invite them over for a Shabbat meal. When my two oldest started Solomon Schechter Day School I had formally moved into a self-imposed shtetl – in the phone list I kept in my Palm Pilot the only non-Jews were my plumber, my carpenter, and my roofer. I had seriously broken my vow.

All that has changed in a month. Now I not only spend hours in dialogue with thoughtful Protestants, but I meet with Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims. My new hero is a seventy-eight year-old Catholic nun who has a sharp sense of humor and speaks of the virtues of silence and contemplative practices. In my new position I also get to meet with many Jewish thinkers and scholars – and invite them in to be part of the creative religious dialogues happening at Auburn.

So this is a tale of a homecoming – and like all tales of homecoming, not only have I changed but the place has changed too. America, which once was steered under the spiritual and moral guidance of the mainline Protestant churches, has now become a diverse multifaith landscape. We are entering an era in which no one group is in the majority and where there will be new challenges for Jews. Unlike other eras in which we had to stay on the good side of the sultan, king, pope or czar, we’ll now have many relationships to maintain and bridges to build. Some of us may retreat even further into our own communities, but ultimately we will have to figure out how to thrive within an evolving system of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “religious biodiversity.” Instead of standing on the sidelines of this flowering of religious diversity, we might ask ourselves what we have to contribute to America’s next era of spiritual and moral development.

On Rosh Hashannah, we speak of teshuvah, which literally means returning. Returning to our ideals, to our responsibilities and ultimately to God. For me, reconnecting with Christians and others has been a type of teshuvah. I never would have imagined that a rabbi could do teshuvah by going off to join a Protestant seminary. But as Isaac Bashevis Singer once said: “It’s God’s novel, let him write it.”

– published in The Jewish Week

Here’s the Profile The Jewish Week Did on Me…

Fanfare for The Common Man (12/20/2001)

Rabbi Daniel Brenner sanctifies the simple gifts of Judaism & America.

Jonathan Mark – Associate Editor

Did Reb Nachman, back in 18th century Europe, ever notice the sky was Tarheel Blue? Maybe not, but God always knew of North Carolina and that rebbes can come from the Piedmont as surely as from Poland. Rabbi Daniel Brenner, native son of Charlotte, N.C., is a storyteller, as surely from the Southern tradition as from the Jewish one. A southern boy, no less a scholar for that, he has none of the aristocratic and academic affect that some rabbis adorn themselves with, as if pretense were fur pelts. No, this rabbi is about as majestic as Royal Crown Cola, as unpretentious as the rotary phone on his desk — yet conscious that this rotary phone speaks of something precious: a call from the past, a sense that any child of God ought see beauty in the commonplace, in a “Chew Mail Pouch” sign on the side of a barn every bit as much as in the glass case of Judaica chotchkes in the lobby of a temple. Rabbi Brenner, 32, says, “I’m drawn to something I’ve gotten from the South; the importance of being a common man and living a simple life. I think it keeps you rooted. I take great pleasure in those things.” As he says in one of his theatrical works — for he’s also a playwright and performer — he comes from a world that’s a montage of “red earth and frozen bagels,” yarmulkes “tucked quickly into pockets … alcoholic neighbors who smoke long brown cigarettes, eat ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread while washing their motor homes … and red-haired girls and proms and Bojangles, fried chicken, gentility — charming and false … manicured lawns, ACC basketball, and yes, real pit barbecue.” Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says, “Daniel is among the most creative, playful and compassionate teachers and rabbis that I have ever met.” Rabbi Brenner, who teaches for Clal, is a nice fit for the think-tank. For though Clal’s original mission was premised on denominational and religious tolerance, it was always more than that. After all, tolerance evokes the word “tolerate” whereas what Clal really does is to celebrate; seeing the fingerprints of God where folks don’t think God’s been; telling the self-deprecating Clark Kent that he can have and use amazing powers by just imagining a deeper, if once secret, Jewish identity. Rabbi Brenner’s father was from New York City, says the son. “He had the rhythm of Brooklyn, so I’ve always been drawn to the city and to spend some of my life here. Clal is an extension of my hybrid identity. In New York I don’t have to negate any part of the Jew that I am or the American that I am.” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the great rebbe-sages of the Jewish Renewal movement, says of Rabbi Brenner: “There are some people who when they ‘do Jewish’ forget American; when they ‘do American’ forget Jewish. There is such a beautiful blend, in which he brings the images of our tradition and the general culture together in an amalgam that is always inspiring and makes access easy.” Rabbi Brenner has crafted blessings and meditations to help Jews sanctify not only the Jewish holidays but every American holiday, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July among them. Ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Brenner did chaplaincy and led a small congregation in New Jersey, where he lightly saw himself as “the chief rabbi of Exit Seven.” He remembers not only the people but also the “five-and-dime shop with dusty, nearly barren shelves holding eyeglass pads and athletic supporters. … Being a rabbi in a small town has its advantages. You get to ride in the clergy float in the Fourth of July parade.” With a love for the theater, he turned these experiences into performance, a gentle humorous shmooze akin to Mark Twain or Garrison Keillor. He’s written and performed in plays about the ghost of an old bar mitzvah tutor; about desire, discipline and a kosher butcher shop. He participated in “From Slavery to Freedom,” a collaboration of African-American and Jewish writers retelling the story of Exodus. His autobiographical musings about the sacred and the surreal have been performed on campuses and in New York’s Goldman Theater. He’ll fuse his gift for teaching, writing and the rabbinate by reimagining a translation for the Kaddish, that describes his own soul as well as reinvigorating the old English, an attempt, he says, “to put the Kaddish into “slang, street.” “Make the God-name big. Big and holy. Do it in this world, … Do it fast, soon, in our lives, in the days ahead, in the life of the people we call home. Everybody join with me: May the name be blessed forever and ever! Yes, blessed. Blessed, whispered, sung out, shouted, honored, this holy name. The name is beyond any song, poem, or comforting words we could ever speak. Everybody say: That’s the truth! … Make that peace in the heavens, great Peacemaker, great One who brings wholeness to our people. Stop. Everybody pray: May it be true.” There’s power in common words, power even in his daddy’s way of looking at a Torah. “We hold the Torah like a baby, gently cuddling it to our breast. We dress it carefully; we touch it lightly. We honor it like an elder, standing before it, honoring its history. We treat it like a jewel, hiding it away except for special occasions.” At his home in Montclair, N.J., he sees his toddlers play with their blue stuffed Torahs. “And at times, when they are not whopping each other over the head with them, I see them using the objects as dance partners. They hum a chasidic-like melody that often spins off into a Barney tune, or march the Torahs around the room in a big circle.” You play with something as a child, you keep it forever. He carries with him the spirit of old comics — the world of “Raw” and Art Spiegelman. His computer’s “wallpaper” features the display ads such as were found in the back pages of comic books, items like “X-Ray Specs,” or a joy buzzer. “I like looking at this every day,” he says of his screen. At long last, have we found something, like a joy buzzer or X-ray specs, that are meaningless? Perhaps not. For those ads take us back to a different and distant time of endless afternoons, imagination and a juvenile’s wonder, a spirit of wonder that leads us through the desert like the pillars of cloud and flame. The grown man carries the child within. In Carolina, Rabbi Brenner remembers, “We were one of the most traditional families down there. One of the biggest influences in my life was Chabad. My mother’s sister became a baal teshuvah when she was in college and moved to Crown Heights. So, the first Chabad shliach [emissary] in Charlotte stayed over in our basement while he was getting set-up. “Our relatives lived on President Street. We’d go to 770 [Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitcher rebbe’s shul and headquarters] whenever we could. I remember the last time I saw the rebbe daven. He looked at everyone. I mean he looked at everyone. Never in my life had I seen anything like that; the way he could look into a soul. Chabad was such an important part of my childhood because it taught me Judaism did not have to be the boring experience it was in my shul back home.” Raised in a rainbow of denominations, Rabbi Brenner has a goodly worn ArtScroll prayerbook over his desk. “I can daven out of anything. I prefer to daven out of an old siddur.” He picks up a small book of Psalms. “This here, this Tehillim? This is the best.” It was printed in Vienna, 1927, and Rabbi Brenner found in a Philadelphia thrift shop. He was drawn to its hoary old brown cover, the frills and swoops in the design, the embossed Ten Commandments. “I’m crazy about that cover. And the thing about it is this was a book that people had. Even if they owned only two or three books, they’d have this Tehillim. If I really have to say something, this is the Tehillim to say it out of.” Ritual objects have power, he says. “We invest power in ritual objects; it has a history.” Daniel Brenner thumbs through the worn pages before coming to a favorite: “Psalm 30 is where it’s at. It’s the Psalm of someone who’s naturally cynical but then recognizes that there’s something beyond, that his life comes from some place beyond,” where souls are blessed, whispered, celebrated, and secret identities are revealed.

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.

The Future of Foreskins

By Daniel S. Brenner

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatricians issued a statement that decreed circumcision an elective surgery. Since then, the number of male babies undergoing circumcision has been in sharp decline. Many HMOs no longer cover the in-house hospital procedure, and the cut once done on 85% of males is now performed on less than half of American born boys.

Many read this trend as a reflection of a growing social and environmental consciousness regarding the ways humans unnecessarily alter nature. Circumcision is not only seen as painful to the child, but as a violation of the natural human form.

Simultaneously, another seemingly opposite trend is also taking hold — natural childbirth is in decline. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, nearly one in every four children born in America is delivered via surgical methods. Advocates of natural childbirth who used to hope that it would be possible to lower the C-section rate under 15% by 2000, are now worried that in fact it will rise above 25% in 2004. Many doctors prefer their patients of all ages to deliver by C-sections; for women over forty, the rates of birth by C-section have doubled in recent years.

What might these two trends suggest about the future of parenthood? If they seem like trends that run counter to each other—“back” to nature and away from it—I would suggest that in fact both reflect a similar acceptance of the idea that parents do not need a dramatic physical bond with their newborn child. In an age of genetic determinism, this seems a somewhat strange attitude, but maybe it is precisely because these days we imagine ourselves as so linked to our biological offspring through our chemical codes that we downplay the power of cultural processes—experiences we ourselves must go through– that teach us about how our children’s bodies came from our own and are intimately and deeply connected to us.

Of course, I realize that I am talking about something that is extremely gendered and not applicable to the many parents who adopt children. For women, breastfeeding and childbirth can be a direct experience of physical connection with a newborn, what might such a thing be for men? Circumcision, I believe, is a ritual that has always tried to express this kind of bond, one that is both highly symbolic and intensely physical.

I say this as a father who has established a strong bond to his children in part because I circumcised my two sons.

I cut my sons even though I knew that the procedure had been declared medically unnecessary. I knew that I was causing them pain. I had heard that the lack of a foreskin might diminish their sense of sexual pleasure. I say all this, and yet when I stood above my boys, scalpel in hand, I experienced an unparalleled sense of connection to and responsibility for life. The birth was pure wonder. The circumcision was primal and mysterious, connecting me to flesh and blood in a violent and careful moment of father-love.

Since the circumcision, I’ve been verbally attacked on a number of occasions for what I did by people who have heard me speak on the subject or read my writing. I’ve read or heard that my actions were “barbaric”, “savage”, and “criminal”. In an interview I gave to Icon magazine, my positive opinion on the subject was placed in the context of an article that promoted the idea that circumcision kills babies. I am featured on the web-site www.sexuallymutilatedchild.org. The worst was when a woman I met at a benefit dinner called what I did “torture.”

I’m not a doctor. I got the idea of doing the “final cut” from a friend of mine in Philadelphia who did his sons. Here’s how it was done—the moyel, ritual surgeon, sets up the procedure by using a scissors-like device that slips between the penis shaft and the foreskin. Then the moyel places the foreskin into a stainless steel clamp. The clamp allows the father to remove it with a single cut of the scalpel. The whole procedure takes less than two minutes.

Circumcising my first born son was harder than I thought it would be. Not the emotional challenge, but the physical part, the actual slicing involved. It took more elbow grease than I had imagined. It was easier five minutes later with my second son.

So, am I a child abuser? Should I be locked up?

Every parenting book or magazine I read told me to leave them alone. The video at the birthing center showed how to clean a foreskin. Our Lamaze teacher talked about the natural beauty of an “intact” member. But with over fifty people watching, I quickly uttered a blessing and did my first surgery. I surprised myself – I was more calm and focused than I could have imagined. Thankfully, the boys didn’t cry much – their eye exam a few days earlier was twenty times worse. And, to be honest, there wasn’t much blood.

Many Jews I speak with imagine that as American culture in general moves away from the practice and our own numbers dwindle through intermarriage, we will be left with only a few die-hard members of our tribe who will still perform the ceremony. In coming years, choosing the practice will be much akin to the experience of Jews in Great Britain, where only 1% of the general population of males is circumcised, and many Jews opt out.

This will pose a dilemma for American Jewish parents. Should circumcision, the tribal marking of “Jewishness” established by Abraham (Genesis 17:11) be shunned and replaced by the rituals that have recently been popularized for Jewish girls? Many of my rabbinic colleagues have already been asked to conduct such ceremonies. My bet is that this ritual trend will soon be the norm. In ten years, most Jewish boys will be intact. And lox and bagels will be served at their naming ceremonies.

On the other hand, if the process were not so bloody and painful—if, say, laser surgery or genetic engineering could make removing a foreskin a piece of cake—would more opt for it?

There is precedent in Jewish legal tradition for such cases. Since there have always been males who emerged from the womb foreskin-less, the rabbinic authorities had to create an alternative ceremony. In such cases, a simple drop of blood, hatafat dam brit, was extracted from the skin of the penis. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 263:4)

Whether it will be a tiny needle prick, laser surgery or genetic modification, I imagine there might be medical technologies available to my children when they become parents that would ensure a relatively painless bris. This could lead to a return of the practice, albeit under very different circumstances. I also sense that these technologies will fundamentally change what circumcision as a rite-of-passage has come to mean to me.

I could have just said some words to my boys, or lit a candle or given a gift. But I believe the blood, the marking of their bodies, mattered. Maybe on some level we need small, ritualized acts of violence to curb larger ones. This is how sports work to channel aggression, or dancing in a mosh-pit, mashing potatoes or chopping firewood. Circumcision, like a gang tattoo, is a small act of violence that makes a covenant between bodies. It is a moment of betrayal and danger that produces, paradoxically, a promise of trust and safety. “You are now like me,” the mark says, “so we will protect one another.”

Ultimately, I hope that the moment of ritual violence I performed on my sons will be placed by my sons into a larger context of love, loyalty and protection that they receive from their father. That is how I view my own father’s actions, and hope that my son’s will view theirs and so on down the line.

The question of how Jews will remain connected to ancient rites of violence is, of course, not isolated to the future of foreskins. In the other uses of the knife – ritual slaughter of cows, chickens, and goats – the entire question of what is kosher may be altered by new technologies. Clearly the next phase in food development will be to synthesize and produce meat products without the need for husbandry. Goodbye butcher shops, and steaks that take an hour to chew, hello kosher cheeseburgers.

I am glad that I chose to use the knife. But I honestly cannot predict what my children will choose if they have sons. If my hypothetical grandsons are not going to be marked by circumcision as Jews, how will they be symbolically seen as tribesmen? Will there be a Jew tattoo? A Jew appendage? A Jew hat? A Jew sticker to slap on the back of your Segue?

Our relationships to our bodies, and to our children’s bodies, have changed enormously over the millennia, never moreso than through modernity’s astounding advances in medical technology. But we have the power to make choices about our physical connections to the human beings that carry our DNA, and not just through the technological magic of modern science, but with our own hands, our own actions, as well.

published on www.Beliefnet.com

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.