Friday, September 25, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuva 5770-Our Prayers Aren't Bull

Nine years ago, I wrote a musing for Shabbat Shuvah entitled "Bull From Our Lips" I offer it again to you this year, slightly massaged, revised, and re-written.

The prophet Hosea says in one of the special haftarot for Shabbat Shuvah:

"K'chu imachem d'varim          "Take words with you
v'shuvu el-Ad-nai,                   and return to the Lr"d,
imru eylai,                              Say to Him:
kol-tisa avon,                         'Forgive all guilt
v'kach tov,                             and accept what is good;

un'shalma parim s'fateinu"       instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips.'"

Our words are what we offer to G"d instead of animals. Which words? The words of
prayer? Of praise? Of repentance? Of our hearts? Of our minds? Perhaps it's not the words themselves- it's how we use them, and what we use them for. Our words are taken the place of bulls, but bull should not be coming from our lips.

Intent matters. The words may be difficult to pray. You may not understand them. You may disagree with them. How you deal with that matters.  You can spout the words of the given liturgy, use a newer version of the liturgy, or, some say, even substitute your own words. I'm not sure it matters much to G"d if you're chanting or ortho-mumbling traditional Hebrew liturgy, reading English translations, using some fanciful new liturgy, or simply speaking what is in your heart. In fact, I suspect that G"d might appreciate the latter most. Just as long as when you pray, there's no bull on your lips.

Of course, what do you do in those times when you faith is weak, challenged, or unsure. For some, just saying the familiar words, even without the intent behind them, works. In that case, their intent is simply performing their ritual obligation. Shall we count that as any lesser intent? Is it up to us to judge?

Of late, I've been in discussion with peers and colleagues about the future of Judaism, and things like cyber-shuls and digital sefer Torahs. While the idea may seem strange to some, for others, it is their way of connecting. Again, it should not be for us to judge what works spiritually for another.

Let's take the discussion beyond the synagogue, beyond the uttering of ritual prayer. These days, it seems like bull is sprouting from just about everyone's mouth. It's hard to separate the truth from the garbage. Some say it's our sound-byte society. The fewer words we use, the harder it becomes to express the range of what we really want to say. (Trust me, using Twitter is teaching me, someone who has struggled with an overly verbose style of writing and speaking for decades, how not to waste words. Having only 140 characters to make a point really forces you ti whittle it down to the essentials. Nevertheless, as our own scriptures teach us, sometimes the fewest words express things the best

Some say it's the language itself. It has grown so dense, so complicated, so full of slang, buzzwords, etc. that one can't help but use them.

Words, words, words. It's not the words that are the problem. We need the words to communicate. It's how we use them, and what we use them for. Imagine for a moment a good person, one who embraces his faith, has respect for themselves and respect for others. Who strives to treat others as another "you" or "thou" rather than an "it", as Martin Buber would put it. Are not all their efforts in vain if they do not use the language of communication properly? A mutual language of communication must reflect mutual respect. Once any bull starts emanating from their lips, the process is hopelessly poisoned.

As it is with each other, then so it must be with G"d. As ...what comes from our lips shall be like the offering of bulls to G 'd. Hosea wasn't just telling us that Temple sacrifices can be replaced by words. These words are our sacrifice to G"d. Thus we must treat what we say in our communications with G"d carefully, keep them as unblemished as the bulls we would offer up. No less in true in our communications with each other.

Not that we cannot be earthy. One good look at the Psalms will tell us that our tradition teaches us to truly speak our feelings to G"d-even if those feelings are anger, disappointment, lack of faith. G"d hears those kinds of expressions, and they are just as much a sacrifice to G"d as are words of praise, thanks and submission.

Still, we will know, and G"d will know, if the words we utter, no matter how beautiful, glorious, and seemingly pious, are words in the place of bulls, or the stuff that bulls leave behind.

We are truly fortunate, in our Jewish tradition, that we have been given so many words to use and ways to use them, in our communications with G"d. We have the prose and poetry of the siddur, the psalms, songs and liturgies. These words are so well crafted that they can be truly natural coming from
our own lips and hearts and minds as if they were our own. It is no crime nor shame to use them when we cannot find words of our own (and because the power of using these words communally is so great, there is good reason to try and use them whenever you can.)

Yet sometimes that doesn't work. I know there are times I try to pray the words of the siddur and know that my lips are offering not sacrificial bulls, but the other kind of bull. Those are the times when I must find other words with which to speak with G"d. And speak I must. Pray I must. For each day and each moment reveal to me G"d's creation, and also G"d's frustrating mystery.

Pray. Pray to G"d. If all you can pray is "G"d, I don't want to pray" or "G"d, I don't believe in prayer" that's ok. That kind of truth is like a sacrifice to G"d. That's no bull. Let what you pray be an offering of your lips.

I wish you and yours a Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Khatima Tovah!!


©2009 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, September 18, 2009

Random Musings Before Rosh Hashanah 5770 The Dualities of Life II

This musing is an adaptation of my musing from Rosh Hashanah 5763

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. We are told, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed." For many Jews, it is a difficult concept to embrace.

What are we to make of this conflict between free will and predestination?

For me, the question becomes--who is doing the writing?

Tradition tells us that it is G"d who makes these determinations, but I think another interpretation is equally acceptable. It is us, ourselves. We are the ones who, by what we do and do not do, by what we believe and do not believe, by what we confess and do not confess, by what we vow to do better and what we write off as simple character flaw, by all this and more, we write our futures into the book of life.

Surely, how we live our lives, or think we live our lives, can and does affect what happens on our lives. Yes, there are powers greater than us that still ultimately can affect our future. However, we can affect our present and our future, and those of others as well.

Our choice, for example, to be or not to be an active member of klal Yisrael, working to fulfill our end of the covenant we have with G"d, affects not only ourselves but the entire community. Our ability to keep our communal covenant is only as good as our weakest link. However, we live in changing times, and the definition of what it means to be an active participant in k'lal Yisrael  are in flux. Individuality and universality are in tension with the communal and particularism.

There are those who say assimilation weakens us, diminishing the numbers of us who are able to act righteously and thus bring about our part in whatever G"d's plans are for us. Then there are those who argue that the loss to our community through assimilation strengthens us, by removing the weakest from the community. Both arguments have merit, and our own scriptures speak of our being both numerous as the grains of sand, and also achieving continuity through a remnant.  There is yet a third argument--that assimilation is actually a positive force that allows us to involve the gerim tosh'vim in what we do, thereby extending our power to affect the world. We truly become an or l'goyim in this way. Again, these differing understandings are in tension.

There's a part of me that believes that surely a faithful Jewish community, numerous as grains of sand, is the better option than a remnant. Yet I cannot be certain.

Perhaps G"d is hedging bets, allowing for the future G"d wants for us, yet allowing us, through our free will, to determine how that path is to be followed, that destination reached. Which brings us back to our role in what gets written in the book of life.

How we all work towards our own today and tomorrow, as well as the collective present and future of the Jewish people is in our hands, our hearts, our minds. As we pray and reflect at Rosh Hashanah and during the days between then and Yom Kippur, let's reflect on how we might exercise influence over what gets written in the book of life. Even, if in G"d's great wisdom, our efforts to live by our covenant do not achieve for us another full year of life in the great book, there is surely no harm, and great righteousness, in so doing. Perhaps that is why we are told that it is indeed G"d, and not ourselves, that write what happens in the book of life. Perhaps if we knew just how much influence we could have on what gets written, we'd be tempted to do good for the wrong reasons (i.e. to gain another year of life), or become bitter and angry when, despite righteousness, the lives of some get cut off. More concepts in tension with one another.

Then again, is desiring another year of life a bad thing? Our own tradition promises us the blessing of long life if we follow G"d's commandments and do what we have promised to do. Yet this promise has led us to all sorts of debates on theodicy, on why bad things happened to good people. Maybe it is easier (and wiser) for us to simply believe that what gets written in the book of life is not under our control or influence. What, and give up free will? 'Tis a puzzlement, and a tension.

So, I've once again successfully talked myself in a circle out of my own argument. What an appropriate thing at this time of year, as we celebrate the cycle of another year.

I still want to believe that we can influence what gets written in the book of life. Yet I also know that the lives of even the most righteous among us could get cut short this coming year.

Are life and death opposites, to be held in tension? Or or they part of a circle or a continuum? Does Judaism teach us to balance, to keep in tension, life and death? It certainly asks us to "choose life." Yet it also attempts to tell us that ultimately we are not in control of our living or dying. We choose life not just so that we may live, but also those who come after us. What we do here and now will affect what happens after we are gone. So even today and tomorrow are in tension (or from tomorrow's perspective, today and yesterday.) If there is a "book of life," it's probably pretty messy, scribbled in, with lots of little marginal notes,changes, etc.

"But it's sealed," I hear you say. If this is so, then why are we taught that the gates of repentance are always open? Yes, repentance is given some urgency, and even a suggested time limit during the Yamim Noraim, yet it seems that even what is sealed in the Book of Life is subject to revision. So is it sealed, pre-ordained, or not? Does free will matter. Yet more tension between ideas.

Call it yin and yang, call it l'havdil, call it mayim and shamayim, call it or v'choshech, man and woman--even in this most sacred time of the year, our tradition illustrates the dualities of existence. The dualities of life. Our system of belief recognizes it, embraces it.

In these times, the challenges seem greater, and the conflicts appear to some to be more black and white. Yet I believe things are just as gray as they ever were. As we live through this time of change for Judaism, we must respect the tensions within it, for they enable us to achieve a reasonable mean. Even if it means that the mean itself changes over time. What is normative now may not be so in the future. Certainly, what is normative now was not so in the past.

We are redefining Judaism, Jewish community, Jewish identity, Jewish worship and praxis. It is not an easy process, and there will be slips and stumbles, contentious debates and more along the way. Just remember to be open to what was, what is, and what could be.

May you be inscribed and sealed for a challenging year.

Long live the conflict between free will and predestination! May it always confound us, and give us the impetus to study, learn, and try and figure it all out.

May this new year be a year of blessing for each and every one of you and your families, and it may it be a year of confounding, searching, learning, and teaching.

Shanah tovah u'metukah,

©2009  by Adrian A. Durlester (portions ©2002)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769-Disconnecting and Reconnecting the Dots

Six years ago, I wrote a musing for this parsha entitled "Connecting the Dots" In it, I explored the possible meanings of the Masoretic "dots" inserted above the first 11 letters of the words "lanu ul'vaneinu ad" (only the final dalet is absent the dot) in the sentence:

Hanistarot l'-Ad"nai El"heinu v'haniglot lanu ul'vaneinu ad olam la'asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot"

My translation: "The hidden things are for Ad"nai, our G"d, and the revealed things are to us and to our children for all eternity to do all the words of this teaching."

The JPS's translation" Concealed acts concern the L"rd our G"d; but with over acts. it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this teaching."

In so translating this text, the JPS committee decided to side with the traditional understanding of this text referring to responsibility of the community for dealing with sinners. The dots, say most scholars, tell us that the people of Israel could ignore the instruction until they came into the land of Israel. That is, they were not obligated to deal with revealed sin, or work to prevent people from sinning, until they had entered the land, after taking the responsibility upon themselves with the oath ritual at Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal.

Rashi supports this interpretation, and relies upon Talmud to so so, citing portions from Sanhedrin 43b and Sotah 37b.

Of course, all this is based on the supposition that the Torah, as we now have it, was known and revealed to the Israelites (at Sinai?)before they entered the land after 40 years wandering in the wilderness.

Why, probably two or so millenia later, in the 7th century CE, would the Masoretes feel it necessary to dot the words "lanu ul'vaneinu ad?" What was troubling the rabbis, Rashi, and the Masoretes?

Rashi claims that G"d did not mete out punishment even for revealed sins in great quantity before the people entered the land after accepting the oath. thus becoming responsible for the conduct and behavior of each other. Rashi was a proponent of punishing the many (i,.e. the community) for the sins of the individual, for it is as much their failure. (Given this world view, it's no wonder the rabbis went to such great lengths to create a fence around the Torah

So what troubled Rashi, the rabbis, the Masoretes? Surely plenty of punishment for sins was meted out during the people's time in the wilderness. Pinkhas showed great zeal for such activities. Korakh and his rebel band were dealt with quite directly by G"d. Why, their very wandering in the wilderness was a punishment for the sin of doubting G"d. Yes, things got much worse after we entered the land, largely due to our own inability to control ourselves. We failed, as individuals, and as a community, to live up to our covenant, and for that we were punished and kicked out of the land. Twice-the second time for good. (I'm not sure that our ability to presently be in the land again means all is forgiven and our period of expulsion for our sins is over.)

Why only the eleven letters? Why is the word "ad" only dotted over the first letter, the ayin? How can we ignore one letter of the word? Just a typo that got carried on through tradition, or is it purposeful?

So again I ask, why would the Masoretes mark text to be disregarded by people who preceded them by thousands of years? Was this their nod to previous generations of rabbis and scholars who argued that this little piece of text was inapplicable prior to the people entering the land? Why not be bold and say "this applies to us now and foreverm so what does it matter that for a short time, thousands of years ago,it didn't apply" The Masoretes were fixing something that didn't need fixing. So again I ask why?

Shortly after this perpelexing text, and its perplexing dots, we come to the famous "lo bashamayim hi" which teaches us that Torah is not too baffling to be understood by anyone. It would seem the Masorete's dots in 29:28 directly contravene this concept. For that matter, so do thousands of years of rabbinical and scholarly writings, from Talmud on down to modern Responsa. All of them exist on the basis that Torah isn't clear, and needs explanation, needs gaps filled, etc. I'd be so bold as to stipulate that all of halakha is in direct contravention to the text of Deut. 30:11-14.

We developed this idea, this tradition of the Oral Torah (which eventually  became Mishnah, Gemara, Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, and more.) It exists to help us understand what we don't understand in the Torah. Yet Torah herself tells us that she is not to difficult for anyone to understand. Oh, what a viscous circle we have woven.

Maybe it's time to forget the dots, and stop trying to connect them. Maybe it is time for each of us to assume our roles as individuals (and communities) fully capable of understanding Torah, without intervening layers.

This has been on my mind of late, largely because of something I read in my efforts to help be a part of the future of Jewish education. The piece, Ten Things I Learned About The Future of the Jewish People From the Future of the Jewish People, makes an important point about today's youth being a creative generation, with easy access to the tools that enable them to be creative. Using Wikipedia as an example, author David Bryfman says that today's youth need to be part of creating anything which they will respect, and that includes working with our sacred texts. He wrote:

A Jewish text and a traditional authority are valuable only once their respect has been earned – something that can only be established when teens are given the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with either the text or the authority figure. Likewise rituals are only as meaningful as the sovereign selves who help construct and develop them. This rejection of tradition has been interpreted by some as disrespectful – but instead needs to be re-framed within the passion and dedication of those many young Jews who strive to be creators and interpreters and not merely recipients of a tradition. (emphasis added)

I have taken this idea to heart and plan to use it at the core of my teaching and other activities in Jewish education.

How might today's youth approach these two pieces of Torah: the dotted "lanu ul'vaneinu ad" and "lo bashamayim hi?" They would certainly embrace the latter concept, as it pretty much guarantees their place as interpreters of Torah. How would they seek to be both creator and receiver of that text?

Why don't we try for ourselves to find out. while I'm not going to create a wiki to discuss this (at least, not for now) I'd like to ask you, my readers, to openly engage in the process of creating and receiving Torah by offering your thoughts on Deut. 29:28 and 30:11-14. Post your comments here, on the blog post of this week's Random Musing. (If you're reading this in an email or on a page of my web site, the blog is at Together we can create and receive.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, September 4, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ki Tavo 5769-If It Walks & Talks Like a Creed...

Judaism, it is said, is a religion without a true creed. Creed is defined as:

creed (plural creeds)

  1. That which is believed; accepted doctrine, especially religious; a particular set of beliefs; any summary of principles or opinions professed or adhered to.
  2. A reading or statement of belief that summarizes the faith it represents; a definite summary of what is believed; a confession of faith for public use; esp., one which is brief and comprehensive.


Some have argued that the Shema declaration is, in effect, a creed - a statement in a belief in the One G"d. In his book, Understanding Jewish Theology, Jacob Neusner, writes that

"the Shema contains the entire proclamation of the Jewish creed."

Neusner goes on to describe the Shema as declaring G"d as One, G'd as revealer of Torah, and G"d as redeemer, thus delineating three categories of belief: One G"d, Torah as Divine revelation (inclusive of Torah and subsequent Jewish writings), and Israel as a community of holy people.

That's a pretty amazing (and speculative, though supported historically) derivation from so few words. In my own view, the very simple nature of these 6 Hebrew words defy their ability to be considered a creed.

Over the centuries, some scholars have suggested the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, are a creed, but it's difficult to see those as articles and statements of faith.

Philo tried creating a creed:

G"d exists, and reigns
G"d is One
The world is a creation
Creation is a One-ness
G"d's will orders creation

Saadia Gaon tried. Judah HaLevy tried. The Rambam (Maimonides) tried. His thirteen articles of faith gained wide acceptance-but not because of any consensus, but rather through the weight of his scholarship.

While parts of all these understandings and others found their way into our liturgy, their remains no consensus.

If there is a creedal statement in Judaism, some find it right here in this week's parasha, Ki Tavo. It is the words of the ritualistic statement to be uttered by every Jew when bringing their first fruits to the Temple:

"My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the L"rd, the G"d of our fathers, and the L"rd heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The L"rd freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm, and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O L"rd, have given me" (Deut: 26:5-10)

Is that a creed?  Compare it to the Nicene Creed of Christianity:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

*-1975 ICET translation

The Nicene Creed speaks rather specifically about what the believer believes, within a religio-historical narrative. The first fruits declaration has the religio-historical narrative, but no clear statement of belief. It is also intended as a prayer-a prayer for acceptance of the offering of first fruits. The text is merely explanation of why we choose to make this offering. That in itself is sort of odd. Why do we need an explanation for why we are thanking G"d? No where else in the Torah is a prayer specifically outlined as it is here. Why this one prayer? What makes it so significant (This is one reason some call it a creed.)

Some scholars have speculated that the intent is to remind of us things for which we ought to be thankful, since we're prone to forget. Makes sense, but hardly makes it a creed.

It is a statement of belief that the mentioned things took place-that we went to Egypt, were oppressed, redeemed by G"d and sent to a promised good land. In the absence of real historical evidence that any of these things ever actually took place, how does one understand these words, let alone understand them as creedal? Yet we say them year after year at our Pesakh Seder.

Yet these words are the religio-historical history of the seminal event in our existence as a people. Does it matter if the events described are historical fact or not?

Therein is possible justification for it being a creed. In the absence of empirical evidence, it seems illogical to make such a declaration. Yet we make it, even today. That is an article of faith, if ever there was one. A creed for a non-creedal religion. A creed that lies not at the heart of liturgical worship text, but a peripheral statement, a reminder of why we do what we do and why we believe what we believe. (Most people might call that an apologetic, rather than a creed.)

There is perhaps a more cynical view of why this might be considered a creed. Note how the rabbis twisted the true meaning of the words "arami oved avi" to read " An Aramean destroyed my father. Only a real creed would need such apologetic tinkering!

I leave you with that thought.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester