Nothing Trumps Character : Some Timely Reflection on the Election

We will have a great reckoning on  November 9th. I am not talking about anything political, but rather the eventuality of our needing to deal with who we are as a nation. This election has called into question the nature of our character as people. With the election finally behind us we will need to make sense of who we are and who we want to become. We cannot just blame it all on the politicians. We have to recognize our role in the circus of this election. All of us, a part of it, sitting there in the big top tent cheering,  jeering, watching, and waiting for the next spectacle.  We have to own our part of not turning away from the sickening entertainment; and sadly, we have to admit it has been fun. Finally, without the distraction of  those seeking public office, we will need to make sense of our moral lives. How will we explain this to the next generation?

I was particularly struck by the Republican response to revelation of the 2005 Access Hollywood video tape. For those who have been following Trump’s train wreck of a campaign this was not out of character given his history of horrible comments about women. Why, after months of “othering” so many people and groups of people, was this was over a line causing many of his supporters to jump ship? And to make it worse, so many of his supporters opened their remarks saying, “As a father of daughters…” So in response to all of them I have to say that as of father of daughters and as father of sons, and as a human being, I am deeply troubled by the implications of this election. To my mind having to apologize to stand up to misogyny with the prop of a daughter is itself part of the problem of our society.

Earlier in the campaign when Trump was asked about his misogynistic language (as compared to the recent tape of his bragging about sexual assault) he deflected the question by saying:

I think the big problem this country has is being  politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So it is true that I am not Mexican, I am not a Muslim, I am not yet disabled, I am not a war veteran, I am not “from the inner cities”, I am not a person of color, I am not gay, and I am not a woman. I am an educated white heterosexual man from the suburbs who is the father of daughters and sons.  So while I am pretty safe and in a position of privilege, as a Jew I cannot forget the lessons of history and the importance, for humanity’s sake, of standing up for what’s right.  We cannot stand idly by in this practice of “othering” people. So, I have to be honest with you, this country needs to make time to talk about these issues.

So, last Sunday I got up and got sucked into the vortex of my Facebook feed yet again. I found myself  watching a video of Trump at one of his rallies. In response to violence breaking out against protesters at his rally, Trump joked,  “You have to admit that there is nothing as fun as a Trump rally”.  While it seems absolutely deplorable to joke about violence in any form, I got to thinking if, in a sick way, Trump might be right. Is it true? Is there nothing as fun as a Trump rally? I cannot imagine that I am the only one who cannot stop watching it. What is the nature of our character when having fun is necessarily at the expense of “othering” people?

I was thinking about this the night which marked the advent of the holiday of Sukkot- Chag Simchateynu– the holiday of our happiness. How do we as Jews define fun and what does it say about our character?

Every morning throughout Sukkot when the Temple in Jerusalem stood, a unique service was performed: the Nisuch ha-Mayim –  Water Libation Ceremony. The water for the libation ceremony was drawn from a pool in the City of David and carried up the Jerusalem pilgrim road to the Temple. Afterwards, every night in the outer Temple courtyard, tens of thousands of spectators would gather to watch the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah -Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing. As the most pious members of the community danced and sang songs of praise to God the dancers would juggle lit torches, and were accompanied by the harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets of the Levites. We learn in the Mishna in Sukkah, ” They [the Sages] said: Anyone who has never seen the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah has never seen rejoicing in all his days” (Sukkah 5:1). So evidently the fun was palpable, but does it stand up to a Trump rally?

The  Mishna continues:

At the conclusion of the first day of the Festival of Sukkot  (That would be today) they went down to the court of women, where they had made a tikkun gadol- great enactment. (Sukkah 5:2)

What does this mean? Why did they need to make a great enactment amidst all of this fun? On this the Gemara asks the same question saying:

What was the great enactment? Rabbi Elazar said: Like that of which we have learned: Originally [the walls of the Court of the Women] were smooth, but [later the Court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukkah 52a)

Is this model of Simcha by marginalizing women our model of highest joy? Let’s continue by looking at the Gemara which says:

Our rabbis have taught: Originally the women used to sit within the Court of the Women while the men were outside, but this would cause levity, it was instituted that the women should sit outside and the men inside. But they would still come to levity. It was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukkah 52a)

While Trump, a model of levity and licentiousness, is happy inspiring inappropriate behavior at a rally, here, at the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, amidst this occasion of real joy, they enacted various changes that would prevent frivolity and maintain holiness. It is interesting to note that they tried various solutions until finding one that prevented frivolity. At first, they put the women in the middle and the men on the outside, but that did not work. Then, they put the men in the middle and the women on the outside and this also did not work. It was only when the women were in the balcony that it worked. Did they even consider putting the men in the balcony and the women where the action was?

In her essay  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she coined the expression “Male GazeLaura Mulvey wrote:

Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.                                     

Reading these words helped me unpack why all of the “fathers-of-daughters” politicians drove me crazy. It seemed that it was too little too late given the litany of people that Trump and his supporters have marginalized. And while it seemed noble for them to stand up to Trump’s objectification of women, in their very rejection of Trump these politicians objectified women.  Being offended on one’s daughter’s behalf makes those very daughters “bearers of meaning and not makers of meaning.” How is this any different than what was going on with the great enactment of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah? Neither of the first two solutions dealt with the issue that it is the active male who gazes and passive female who is being looked at that leads to frivolity.

This great enactment at this moment of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah in the Temple is locus classicus for why any Orthodox Synagogue today has a mechitzah. For more on this see some great essays by Rabbi Henkin in his book Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. So before I jump on the band wagon of tarring and feathering Trump for his having fun at the expense of others it seems worthy of reflecting about how I as an Orthodox Jew communicates values to my daughters and my sons from the context of an Orthodox synagogue.

The solution in the time of Temple was putting women in a  balcony, but might there have been another solution if we had not been limited to the structure of the Temple? Why is this moment at the Temple the model for our synagogues thousands of years later? Might there be a better model for appropriate fun for our synagogues today?

After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis longed for ways to bring the sanctity of the Temple into our lives. Ezekiel cries out, “Lord God, you are wiping out the remnant of Israel.” God responds by declaring that God has “removed them far among the nations and have scattered them among the countries, and I have become to them a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary”. (Ezekiel 11:13) According to the Talmud , God will dwell in the holy spaces we create, for they are the Temple in miniature (Megilah 29a). A synagogue was transformed into mikdash me’at, for us to gain access to the temple. In addition we read in Psalms:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. ( Psalms 137: 5-6)

Through the synagogue we could gain access to real joy. So Jerusalem is the place of joy and as we learned in the Mishna in Sukkah, the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah was the paradigmatic time of joy. This seems to set the standard for the synagogue with its great enactment.   But what is significant about this particular moment?

In the cycle of the year, we have just made it through the ordeal of judgment throughout the High Holidays. During the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, we are immersed in the ritually rich holiday of Sukkot heading towards the holiday of Simchat Torah.  All this on the heals of Yom Kippur, when we expiated ourselves from our sins, we now show up in the Temple to start the reading of Genesis and imagine starting over again as equals with everyone as we were in the Garden of Eden.  “And God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God created God man; male and female created God them” ( Genesis 1:27). We imagine ourselves side by side with no one being marginalized.

During the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah they showed up at the Temple to be seen by God, but they needed to deal with their inappropriate gazing that led to frivolity. As we create our mikdash me’at in our synagogues today, we are also trying to make a space where people can show up to be seen by the Divine and where there is no frivolity.  Might men and women standing side by side with a mechitzah right down the middle be our great enactment?  In this way we can experience appropriate joy without having to “other” anyone, neither our daughters nor our sons.  In my mind this is a model of true joy and the ideal for a synagogue.

How might this divine gaze be a model for us as a society?  How might seeing ourselves side by side help us deal with the levity and frivolity in our culture? Standing side by side we can do away with “Locker Room Banter”. Standing side by side we can be crystal clear and define sexual consent. Standing side by side we can stem the tide of our rape culture that is so pervasive on our college campuses. Standing side by side we can make life better for our daughters and our sons. Standing side by side we can re-imagine what it means to have fun without it being at anyone’s expense.

On November 9th, we will still need to deal with the fact that thousands of people in this country have been showing up at Trump rallies. Trump has given them a much wanted voice. I would like to think that under all of this hatred is a noble humanity that just yearns to be seen. As a nation we will need to help everyone find ways to be proud of who they are. We need to take time to let people be honest and let our true selves be seen. To maintain our republic we need to institute a great enactment to ensure that this is never happening at the expense of marginalizing others. “Othering” people is just not fun.

In order for us to become a more perfect union we will need to spend some time thinking about our ideas and the context of our ideals.  To play with one of my favorite quotes which was written by Frank Outlaw, I would say:

Watch your context , they become your thoughts;

watch your thoughts, they become words;

watch your words, they become actions;

watch your actions, they become habits;

watch your habits, they become character;

watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Chag Sameakh- May we all be blessed with a truly fun and joyful holiday.


-This is adapted from a drasha I gave the second day of Yom Tov Sukkot. And yes it caused a bit of stir.

The Symbol of the Sukkah: Physical and Metaphysical

As I was sitting in our sukkah this week, I got to thinking about what this behavior represents. The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) It seems strange in that either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. The question is does this symbol represent something akin to what we are using or does it represent a metaphor. Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that we are actually sitting in the imagined reference point? I am not saying that they are lying, but neither is real. So what are they disagreeing about?

At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality ( real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)?   Joseph Campbell said:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
But maybe that is the point of the sukkah any way. It is immersive metaphor we get to really enter. The sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in physical and history way at the same time as it can be a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.  In this horrid political season it is wonderful to find a place in the sukkah where we can all come together, both expressions are authentic, and neither is a liar.

Agnostic Gestures: God’s Hidden Hand Motions

In Ha’Azinu, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about God Hiding God’s Self from us in difficult times. There we read:

And God said: ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very contrary generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. ( Deuteronomy 32:20)

In reference to this passage we learn in the Gemara that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania was once at the Roman emperor Hadrian‘s court. An unbeliever gestured to Rabbi Yehoshua in sign language that the Jewish people was a people from whom their God had turned God’s face. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania gestured in reply that God’s hand was stretched over the Jewish people. AS it says in Isaiah, “And I have covered you in the shadow of My hand.” (Isaiah 51:16 ) Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Yehoshua what unbeliever had said. Rabbi Yehoshua told the emperor what unbeliever had said and what Rabbi Yehoshua had replied. They then asked the unbeliever what he had said, and he told them. And then they asked what Rabbi Yehoshua had replied, and the unbeliever did not know. They decreed that a man who does not understand what he is being shown by gesture should hold conversations in signs in front of the emperor, and they led him forth and executed him for his disrespect to the emperor (Chagigah 5 a-b) 

This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes that comes in various forms about the silent debate between the Rabbi and the Pope. One version goes that several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal: he’d have a  religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews
won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they’d have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a ‘silent’ debate. On the chosen day the Pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple. With that, the Pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy .

Later the Cardinals met with the Pope and asked him what had happened. The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there
is still only one God common to both our faiths. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that
God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and host to show that through the perfect
sacrifice Jesus has atoned for our sins, but the rabbi pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He bested me at every move and I could not continue.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he’d won. “I haven’t a clue,” said the rabbi. “First, he told me that we had  three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews but I told him emphatically that we were staying right here.” “And then what?” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said the rabbi. “He took out his lunch, so I took out mine.”

As evident in the both stories, God works in mysterious ways and we can never be sure that we are communicating effectively if we are limited to using gestures. So while it is true that I like many I often experience our age as a time in which God’s face is hidden, I can also say with confidence that I do not understand God’s “gestures”.  Far be it from me to claim to understand these gestures in front of the King. And who knows, maybe God does not want to drive us away, maybe God just wants a break for lunch.



Generous Orthodoxy: Revisiting Welcoming LGBT on Yom Kippur

As an Orthodox Jewish in preparation for Yom Kippur I pause to take stock of who I am individually and who we are collectively. Am I doing everything I should be doing to make this world a better place? A couple of years ago I was is in a similarly reflective mode when I got to thinking about our tradition of reading a list of sexual prohibitions  in the Yom Kippur afternoon service (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I still do not have an answer to this question, I feel that silence on this issue is its own sin. At that time I wrote a letter to my children if they are gay with 8 promises. What has happened since that time?

While there have been some efforts to be more welcoming to LGBT members of our Jewish community, advancement is really slow going at best. While it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do towards making it safe to be an LGBT member of our community, this year I got to thinking beyond just our community. There have been horrible set-backs in society at large. Bigotry, hate, and even violence toward LGBT people world-wide is a real problem. I would be fool hearty to think that this passage in Leviticus is the cause to this hatred and bigotry. People tend to fear what they do not understand. Nonetheless as an Orthodox Jew I feel that I have a responsibility to relieve this suffering and not to contribute toward it. We are the People of the Book, we have to take responsibility for how we share that story. The day of Yom Kippur itself atones for our sins between us and God. We still need to do the work of healing the wounds of sins between us and other people.

I was thinking about this recently I was listening to Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. In this podcast Gladwell shared the powerful story of Chester Wenger, a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who chose to confront his own church over a question of deepest principle. As pastor in one of the most traditional of religious communities he made the hard choice to officiate at the marriage ceremony of his gay son. Gladwell argues that this is a case of what theologian Hans Frei called Generous Orthodoxy. This paradox of Generous Orthodoxy seems resonant with my ideals of Open Orthodoxy. Wenger offers us a master class in the art of deeply respectful, openhearted, and religiously important dissent.

I will be thinking about this idea of Generous Orthodoxy this Yom Kippur when saying the Unetanneh Tokef prayer. There we say:

Teshuva– Repentance,

Tefilah – Prayer,

and Tzedaka– Charity

will annul the severe decree.

How will we confront our own day of Judgement before God? We will strive to do Teshuva.  It is clear that we all have work to do to make sure we are the best people we can be. On Yom Kippur we will do plenty of Tefilah. There is much to be said for recognizing that we do not have all of the answers. We come together to seek out support from each other and Beyond to make meaning in our lives. And we will give Tzedaka– charity. Wait- I will not being carrying my wallet. Will any of us give charity on the day of Yom Kippur? Might I suggest that on the day of Yom Kippur the charity we are being asked to give is not monetary. Maybe we are being asked to be generous in our orthodoxy itself. So yes I will read the passage from Leviticus, but I will also stand in judgement saying the Unetanneh Tokef. Saying these works I will try to be offer up my wholehearted understanding of orthodoxy. If I need to risk my own sense of self to ensure that everyone feel safe and welcome so be it. Maybe if I could just be a little bit more like Chester Wenger my severe decree against me will be annulled.

Also see:

Unforgiven: Preparing Myself for Yom Kippur

Yesterday I was walking from Grand Central to work listening to Pandora. Seeing that we are in the 10 Days of Repentance  between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur it seemed particularly timely hearing Iron Horse‘s  bluegrass cover of Metalicca’s Unforgiven. Here is a sweat live recording that is worth listening to:


The song deals with a person’s lifelong struggle against the forces that try to subjugate him. He is dubbed ” Unforgiven” because he has not actualized his full potential. The day of Yom Kippur itself atones for our sins between us and God. We clearly use it as an occasion to heal the wounds of sins between us and other people. Listening to this song, I pause to reflect on the possibility that I need to spend some time atoning for the sins between me and myself. As we learn in the song ” that old man here is me”.  Each of us are simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist in our own personal narratives. Have we actualized our full potential? The good news is that the story is not yet over. We can still decide where it goes from here. As we prepare for Yom Kippur, how can we forgive ourselves for the past and work harder to be the person we want to be in the future?

Möbius Torah: The Media and Message of Torah and Teshuva

Recently my dear friend Shalom Orzach was in touch because he wanted explore making another contemporary daf of Talmud. Together we had made one exploring Leah Goldberg’s Pine and the Landscape of Israel  and it was a lot of fun. Despite being very busy I was up for the challenge. It seemed like a great way of preparing for the High Holidays. Pretty quickly we started batting back and forth different texts that we might want to play with in the project. You really have to love Google Docs. Out of this process emerged two interested strands dealing with Teshuva and the question as to where or when is the beginning of our story.

In general this project was in pursuit of putting modern and relevant content in the standard form of the Vilna Daf.

Image result for daf talmud

In general it is an amazing way to portray a conversation over time, but seeing the themes involved I thought we might push ourselves.

Marshall McLuhan once coined  the phrase “The medium is the message“. What would it take for us to find a way to ensure that the form of a medium would embed itself in any message it would transmit? This inspired our creation of Where To Begin: Unending Learning for the 10 Days of Repentance  (Möbius Torah 1.0). To make a Möbius Torah please:

  1. Print this page our on Ledger (11×17) sized paper. This will ensure it is big enough to read.
  2. Cut out the table on the sheet.
  3. Fold along the dotted line with the writing facing outwards.
  4. Bend Paper  into a circular shaped cuff.
  5. Tape the ends to create a möbius strip as in this picture.Image result for mobius strip
  6. As you learn it turn it and turn it again because there is no beginning and no end to learning Torah.
  7. Alternatively you can just learn the text without the arts and crafts project, but that would not be as much fun.

With Möbius Torah 1.0 we hope to create a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message the Torah is perceived. Please print this out and enjoy. It has been a pleasure playing with Shalom in the bringing you this Torah. As always I would love your input and ideas for other ways to make revelation relevant, engaging,  and more accessible. So please do be in touch.

Gmar Chatima Tova

Showing Up as a Prosumers: Standing at Sinai and the Foo Fighters

Recently I have had a number of conversations with people about the aesthetic involved in crafting a wedding. It is noteworthy that in most weddings the committed couple is very much ushered through the event. It often feels that the couple is on stage performing the ritual with the help of a mesader kedushin and we their friends and family are their audience. In many ways it seems that Temple Grandin was the architect of the ritual ensuring that the couple go straight through the experience getting hitched without a hitch.

My suggestion is to ritualized a moment during the ceremony where the tables are turned and the people who come are on stage and the couple is the audience. Surely the guests did not just show up to see the new couple they also came to be seen. There are a number of ways to do this, but this is no doubt a holy moment and a great use of time. If done well every can truly be present at this meaningful moment of creating community, and that moment will last forever.

This idea of showing up and blurring the line between performer and audience was beautifully explored at a now famous Foo Fighters concert. While the design of a concern is that there is a small group performing and a mass of people in the audience. At this concert there were 1000 musicians all playing the Learn to Fly at the same time.  Check out the video:

You can see in their participation the joy of really showing up and being seen. They are true prosumers of culture making something excellent for the sheer love of it. At the end of the video the organizer said it best that the true audience of this 1000 person rock band was actually just the 5 band members of the Food Fighters.

I was thinking about the porous lines between the performers and the audience this week when reading  Parshat Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with Hashem, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov. NOT WITH YOU ALONE do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before Hashem, your God, AND WITH WHOEVER IS NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

On this  ‘WHOEVER IS NOT HERE‘ Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

What does it mean that we were all there? I hope that we were not just on stage getting married. I like to think that the revelation at Sinai we allowed God to show up, be “seen”,  and be part of the experience. In my mind Sinai was millions of us musicians rocking out “Learn to Fly”.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

– For another piece on prosumers check out Tail of Two Jewries: Some Innovative Lessons From Chris Anderson and Jewish Summer Camp

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