Categories
General

Things That Shouldn’t Need to be Said

There are certain things that one assumes don’t need to be said. Or even, that to say them would be insulting to the listener. For instance, telling the photographer at the wedding that they aren’t allowed to get between me (the officiant) and the couple during the ceremony. You know, you kind of assume anyone with some common sense knows not to do that. To tell the photographer not to go there implies that you think they might. Nonetheless, I do tell photographers this, while apologizing profusely, and explaining that I say this only because I had a colleague who once had a photographer of the phot0-journalist style at a wedding laying on the ground between the couple and herself, taking photos upwards. But most photographers look aghast when I tell them this story, which is good, because it indicates that most photographers at weddings have common sense.

Another example: If you are hired to babysit for the rabbi’s family, you don’t try to proselytize the children and tell them how wonderful it is to have Jesus in your life. Just a guess, but that probably doesn’t go over well with your employer (true story–I was the child in question).

Now, I thought that I was pretty much inured to anything the American media could throw at me. I may even have said that the media couldn’t do anything so outrageous it would shock me (which may be like a Buffy character saying, “it sure has been quiet lately…”). I was wrong. I was wrong.

Another of those things that you would think go without saying? Don’t use ethnic cleansing, or participation in ethnic cleansing, as a background for a minor character in a sitcom, no matter how edgy you think you are. It’s not okay to make jokes about ethnic cleansing, even if they are supposed to fall flat. It’s certainly not okay to do it when the genocide in question happened recently enough that both perpetrators and victims still live. (There is a possible exception here for people of that ethnic population being darkly comical on the subject–viz. Springtime for Hitler in the Producers).

“Community”, a sitcom which I normally enjoy, somehow decided it was okay to create a character who loves playing war video-games, and is really good at them…because he used to massacre people in the Baltic. Not okay. Not funny. Especially not okay when this isn’t the focus of a “very special espisode”, but rather a subplot in the episode.

So, apparently the American media can do things I find shocking. I just wish they wouldn’t.

Categories
General spirituality

Gratitude: A list

Gratitude is a spiritual practice found in many traditions. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to focus on what we don’t have, or what’s going wrong. We often fail to take note of all that is going right in our life, and even more, we fail to be grateful for the good things in life. So, here’s a (very) partial list of things I’m grateful for this morning:

  • My body: it basically works, no chronic pain or debilitating illness. Were my body not to function as it does, everything else in life would seem harder.
  • When and Where I live: Ovid (43 B.C. – 18 A.D.) once said, “Let other’s praise ancient times, I’m glad I was born in these.” We are less subject to hunger, the vagaries of the environment and disease than any people in the history of the world. I live in a house which is adequately heated in the winter, and can be cooled with fans or air conditioner in the summer. Not having food means needing to go to the grocery store, not needing to go hungry.
  • Being married to my best friend.
  • The Internet: Admittedly, a mixed blessing, but I am able to write this blog, and distribute it myself without any outside review process, without the costs which have traditionally been involved. Furthermore, when I wanted to check the wording for the Ovid quote, above, I just wiki-ed it. It has never been easier to learn or to share ideas than now.
  • Coffee: The flavor, the aroma, the warm morning goodness of it.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list (thank God there’s so much more!). Which makes the question of when to stop writing somewhat arbitrary, so, arbitrarily, I stop here, and invite you to think on some of your own reasons for gratitude (both great and small), and, if you are so moved, to share them in the comments.

Categories
General Rabbinic spirituality

The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

Categories
General Jewish Spirituality Rabbinic spirituality

Teaching the Unteachable

Teaching mysticism is difficult. Mysticism deals with direct experiential knowledge of God, while affirming that the nature of that God is beyond human expression (and perhaps even understanding). Mystics then attempt to use human expressions to describe this experience and the understandings they have gained, using metaphor and analogy. To make it all the more complex, the mystic (at least in Judaism), sees the lines between metaphor and reality as blurry, and perhaps even non-existent. Other than that, it’s an easy task.

Traditionally, Jewish mysticism (of which I consider Kabbalah to be one type, while others consider the entire history of Jewish mysticism to be included within the bounds of Kabbalah) was taught one on one, over the course of years. The students who studied mysticism were already learned in Torah and Talmud, and knew all biblical text intimately. In my case, I have two hour-and-a-half sessions in an undergraduate classroom with students who will be three-fourths of the way through a semester long course on an introduction to Judaism. Somehow, I find this daunting.

I have spent years studying Jewish mysticism, and at times even consider myself a mystic, in the tradition of Art Green (while hurrying to add that I am neither nearly as learned as he, nor do I have the depth of his understanding of reality). Most days, I still struggle to understand Jewish mysticism. Most days, I am completely confused as to what the authors of a text I am reading are trying to say. Sometimes, I get it. Now, I am to teach it.

Many teachers of Jewish mysticism distinguish between teaching about mysticism and teaching mysticism. Teaching about mysticism is to teach the terminology and the beliefs held by their practitioners as an outsider, an anthropologist looking in. But for the mystic, whose understanding of the world is that we are all part of the Oneness which is Divinity, to teach from the outside view seems to ensure a lack of understanding of the subject. How can one understand something from the outside, when there is no “outside”?

And so, as I prepare a pair of class sessions, going through possible readings, debating the merits of Gershon Sholem’s German-style modernist scholarship about mysticism as opposed to Larry Kushner’s or Art Green’s experiential accounts of Jewish mysticism.  And I am confronted with a basic paradox (upon which paradoxes, after all, mysticism is built): how does one teach about something experiential in a non-experiential way?

Categories
General Rabbinic

Teaching is Fun

After two weeks of teaching at Willamette University, I’m ready to declare teaching fun. I’m sure I won’t always feel as positive about it as I do right now, but I just finished going over my students first set of  ”response papers,” an every-other-week writing assignment in which I ask them to react to the readings, the lectures, or their own reactions to the course. Designed to be more blog-post than academic assignment (my instruction was that it should take 10 – 20 minutes), the responses have been as diverse as my students, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

It’s my first chance to see what students are connecting to in the course, or being challenged by in it.  One reason I love teaching is that I love forcing people to think beyond preconceptions, to explore ideas at a deeper level, and many of these students are doing exactly that. Whether reflecting on how what they are learning affects their own faith (non-Jewish), or thinking about the contrast between studying history and studying the mytho-historic account of a culture (in this case Judaism), to reflecting on teaching style, or a very detailed reaction to a specific page in the reading, it’s all been great.

I’m having so much fun with these response papers, I’d love to make them weekly (relax, students, I’m not going to do it). Even though I suspect it takes me as long to write notes on these as it took many of the students to write them in the first place, the thoughtfulness shown in the writing, and the connections made between material we’re covering and the rest of the world makes it a fabulous exercise. Judaism teaches that we learn as much from our students as we do from our teachers. I’m honored to be learning from my students.

Categories
General

Rabbi David, Now as a Professor

Tomorrow, I embark on a new adventure. I will be teaching a college course on Judaism at Willamette University.

Now, I’ve taught about Judaism in a variety of settings for years. I’ve taught pre-schoolers. I’ve taught kids in elementary school. I’ve taught middle-schoolers (the pre-schoolers were way easier). I’ve taught high-school students. I’ve taught adults. I’ve even taught classes at retirement homes. But, until now, never have I taught at a college.

The good news is that I have a fair amount of experience as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. The even better news is that, in some ways, this will be the educational setting that is the best match for my style, which is challenging people to think about ideas, and to question easy answers.

So I’ve selected textbooks, put together a syllabus and begun to outline lectures and class sessions. I’ve been to the university HR office, and been officially hired as a part-time Visiting Assistant Professor. I know where my classroom is, and have enjoyed fabulous support from the departmental secretary. Admittedly, I’m still somewhat confounded by the internal websites for the university, but that might be because I don’t have everything setup right yet.

And tomorrow, I drive down to Salem, and I enter a new classroom, with a new group of students, and together, we’ll learn something about Judaism.

Categories
High Holidays Rabbinic spirituality

Stubborn Sermons

I’m working on my Yom Kippur sermons. Or rather, I’m trying to work on my Yom Kippur sermons. But they’re refusing to be worked upon.

They are steadfastly refusing to write themselves. Which frankly, just seems churlish of them.

To make matters worse, they won’t even tell me what they’re about. Is one of them about the Isaiah quote, “Is this the fast I desire?” Good sermon topic, and not one I’ve written previously, but I keep hearing that line in my head as spoken by a John Wayne impersonator, which I’m pretty sure is my brain adapting some stand-up comics bit about John Wayne playing Hamlet, and saying, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” None of which is helping me out at all, because I’m pretty clear that John Wayne and Isaiah have radically different voices.

I could talk about God. I like talking about God. Of course, I started off doing that for Rosh Hashanah, and wound up writing a different sermon entirely, because the God sermon was way too dry.

Prayer is a good subject. But, the problem with talking about prayer in a sermon is that the sermon comes a the end of the service–after the prayers have all been said. Which means it often feels like I’m explaining how to do what we just did. Feels a bit backwards.

The flip side of this is that some of my best sermons have been completely off the cuff. The flip-flip side, is that some of my worst sermons have been completely off the cuff. When I go in trusting that I’ll have something coherent and meaningful to say, 80% of the time, I do. It may not be quite as polished as I’d like, but it tends to be pretty good. About 10% of the time, I have something meaningful to say, but it doesn’t come out coherently, and meanders a little. It’s the last 10% of the time that I try to avoid: I start to speak and realize the sermon isn’t going where I wanted it to, and start rewriting an extemporaneous sermon in my head while I’m speaking. Those sermons tend not to work out so well.

So I’ll push through, and try to a least get some drafts out that I can react to: ideas that I can either develop or reject. And sometimes, in the process of putting down an idea, a sermon pops out, pretty much finished.

Categories
General High Holidays

Rosh Hashanah Arrives, I Review My Year

It’s been a bit of a year.

Over the course of this year, I looked for rabbinic work, with no success (no one can remember quite so dead a rabbinic job market as this year). That being said, I hit the summer, and decided it was time to make something happen, and founded a congregation here in Southeast Portland. And while that’s dominated my thinking for the last few months, it wasn’t really what the year was about.

The spring was entirely about death. Over spring and early summer, three people in my life died. I spent all Spring in Boston with my grandfather, accompanying him on his final journey. I wrote about that here and here. In the midst of which my friend Paul Bingman died.

When thinking about this year, that’s what really stands out for me: the spring.

Yet there were other parts of the year as well: I started out the secular year by heading to Spokane to speak at a Unitarian Universalist Church, and meet up with a college classmate I hadn’t seen since college. During June, just after my grandfather’s death, I returned to Portland in time for the college’s Centennial Reunion, with a chance to get to see lots of faces I hadn’t seen since, and meet people’s children and spouses (those few who didn’t marry other classmates). It was a chance to look back over the longer-term, and see who we are now, and how that related to who we were then, in the first blush of adulthood.

It was a year I spent quality time in the garden.

It was a year our car got totalled.

It was a year. And perhaps I was less productive than I would have liked, but I think it was a year of growth for me. A year of figuring out some pieces. And I’m looking forward to the coming year, and to seeing what it brings.