Sitting Shiva for James Brown

I was up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last night to pay my respects to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. While I did not get to view his body - the crowds were seven blocks long and there was a guest list for the viewing during the hours I was there- I did speak with a couple of local women who had spent all day waiting in line and had just come out who were lamenting the fact that he had a "European mortician do his hair." While they loved his last outfit, especially his shoes, they felt that the "White media would focus on his hair." Their words reflected so much of the fear of easy stereotyping that Brown's presence evoked - he was raw, super-bad, a sex machine - although he could bring it down and transform into a smooth soul singer for a ballad, he always had a hard-livin' rasp in his voice. I happened to be standing next to a young Black man from Rock Hill, South Carolina, and we started talking. He was shocked to see a man in a yarmulke in front of the Apollo, and when I told him that I was from Charlotte he just flipped. "A Jew from Charlotte in front of the Apollo? damn. I'll remember this day." I also met an Elder from a local Apostolic Church. When I told him I was a rabbi, he asked if I could use my clergy card to get us both inside. Note to self: find out where to get a clergy card.

James Brown was and will always be one of my musical rebbes. WFMU's Dave the Spazz did a wonderul tribute to Brown and tonight, before shabbes, I'll be playing my James Brown discs and vinyl to usher his superbad soul to the next world. Zichrono l'vracha.


Shaking Hands with Gerald Ford

The day was May 20, 1975 - I was finishing my first year of kindergarten with Mrs. Goldberg at the Charlotte Hebrew Academy and my father and I walked from our house down to Freedom Park in Charlotte, North Carolina to hear the President speak. Ford spoke at the bandshell, the same place I'd later hear the local Beatles-act the Spongetones and party with my junior high school friends. Afterwards my father rushed me down the center aisle, past the security guards, so that I could see the President. Ford gave me a big smile, reached out and shook my hand. Someone said to me "don't wash that hand, young fella!"

Since we always washed hands before we ate - for both religious and hygenic reasons - the comment seemed to me, little almost- six- year- old me, as being pretty stupid. And now I am happy that I did wash my hands. I pulled up Ford on the ol' Wikipedia today to see a color photo of the fromer President hamming it up with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Ford was the one who boosted both men's careers, giving them both the power that they would eventually abuse. Thankfully, Bob Woodward recorded him expressing his regrets.

I'm sorry for his family, and all those who mourn him, but I'm glad that I washed that hand.


5,000 Hits?

Yes, folks, more than five thousand people have now stopped by and spent a minute or two in the Reb Blog universe. Thanks for visiting!



Hanukkah Poem

Bougies Pour Hanukkah

Picture Antiochus the fourth
A large and hairy Antiochus the fourth
It has been three days
A loser on the Egyptian front

A thought bubble rises
I’ll go crush Jerusalem
Win a few style points
Get a fresh supply of women

Has the story been told from the pig’s vantage point?
The crate opens:
The Temple of the Jews? Yee-haw! I’m free at last!

Irony: the pig is the new Isaac.

No one can spell Hannukah, but it is easy to explain:
We eat this because you cook it in something else which reminds us of something else

Judah Maccabee
You are now hollow milk chocolate
Annually decapitated

At one point in the rebellion someone sat, face in hands, weeping:
My brother has been crushed by an elephant

-daniel s brenner


Oy Vey! The Rabbi is Gay! A Children's Tale for All the Conservative Synagogue Educators Who Might Need a Little Extra Help Next Week

A few years ago, I was fortunate to work closely with a Conservative Rabbi, Benay Lappe, who spent her years at JTS in the closet. I learned about the enormous pain that she went through as she had to hide her identity. She chose JTS beacuse she wanted to learn talmud, to be in an environment that cared about Jewish law, and to be part of a movement that valued tradition. I am sure that there are others like Lappe, in the Conservative movement and in Orthodoxy who are struggling to be practicing Jews and to be both psychologically honest and mentally healthy regarding their sexuality. In part, I wrote this story with them in mind. I hope that you enjoy it.

P.S. Thanks to Jewbiquitous, the Jewish Robot and BloggingBaby for blogging about this piece.


A story for children by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Last year, on Rosh Hashannah, our synagogue got a new rabbi.
"He's better than the old rabbi," Sarah Spitzer said to Bill Steinberg, " He's got a beautiful voice and he remembers everybody’s name!" Everyone was happy with the new rabbi.
Everyone except Mr. Birnbaum. Mr. Birnbaum always sat in the back row so that he could talk to his friends during services. He didn’t have anyone to talk to at home. His wife had died many years ago. But when he went to synagogue, he had many friends.
"I heard that the new Rabbi is not married" Mr. Birnbaum whispered to his friends Sarah Spitzer and Bill Steinberg, "Don’t you think that a rabbi needs a wife?"
"He’s so handsome, " Sarah whispered back, " I wonder if he’s dating anyone? I should give him my niece Karen’s phone number. Don’t you think so, Bill? " "Oy! I think that you two should try to stay out of other people's business", Bill replied.
But Mr. Birnbaum was curious. " Is he divorced? Does he have a girlfriend?" Mr. Birnbaum was suspicious. So he came up with a plan.
That night, he called Sarah Spitzer. Together they drove to the Rabbi’s new house. But they did not go into the driveway or ring the Rabbi’s doorbell. Instead, they parked around the corner from the Rabbi’s house, behind some bushes. Then Mr. Birnbaum and Sarah Spitzer crouched down low so that no one would see them.
From the car, they spied into the Rabbi’s house. They did not see the Rabbi. What they saw was a tall man, lying on a green sofa, reading a book.
"Who is that tall man?" Mr. Birnbaum asked Sarah. "And why is he in the Rabbi’s house?"
"Shhh! Keep quiet," Sarah said, "the Rabbi’s car just pulled into the driveway!" Mr. Birnbaum and Sarah Spitzer watched through the window as the Rabbi walked into his new house.
The tall man got up. He put down his book and gave the Rabbi a long hug and a kiss. A long kiss.
"Oy vey!" Mr. Birnbaum exclaimed, "the Rabbi is gay!'
"Well, I guess I won’t be giving him my niece Karen’s phone number!" Sarah joked.
"This is not a time for jokes," Mr. Birnbaum said, "This is serious! I don’t want our synagogue to have a gay rabbi. This is a family congregation!"
"Why didn’t he tell us that he is gay?" Sarah asked. Mr. Birnbaum was upset. "I don’t know." He said, "I’m going to call the board members right now!"
The next night, the board members had a secret meeting to discuss what they would do. Mr. Birnbaum suggested that they should fire the new rabbi and get someone who isn’t gay. Bill Steinberg said "There is nothing wrong with being gay, he’s a great Rabbi." Sarah Spitzer said: "I’m not sure what we should do."

Soon everyone in the congregation heard the rumor that the Rabbi was gay. The Rabbi noticed that people were not as friendly to him as they were before. Sarah Spitzer used to stop by his office to drink coffee and tell jokes. But now the office was quiet. The Rabbi asked Bill Steinberg what was wrong. Bill said "there are many rumors going around about your private life."
The Rabbi was upset. He spent many nights worrying about what he should do about the rumors.
The next week in synagogue, the Rabbi said, "I have a special announcement to make."
The congregation was dead quiet. "What will he say about the rumors?" they thought.
"I want everyone to know that I am a gay Jew," the Rabbi said, "and that I am proud to be gay. When I first came here, I was afraid to tell everyone because I thought that you would not understand. I know that it can be hard to welcome someone who is different into your community. But in this community everyone should have a place, every type of person and every kind of family. I feel that it is time for you to meet my partner, Michael."
The crowd turned as a tall man stood up and said "Shabbat Shalom" to everyone. No one moved. Many people felt uncomfortable. Then Sarah Spitzer stood up and said "Shabbat Shalom!" to Michael. Michael smiled and everyone in the congregation came up to him, wishing him "Shabbat Shalom!"
Everyone except Mr. Birnbaum. Mr. Birnbaum marched out of the synagogue.
Sarah followed him out. "Why are you leaving?" she asked Mr. Birnbaum, "I think that the Rabbi was brave to say what he said."
"Sarah," Mr. Birnbaum said, "this synagogue is changing too fast for me. I’m leaving!"
Weeks passed. Mr. Birnbaum never came back to the synagogue. Instead of talking with his friends in the back row, he stayed at home and looked through his old photo albums. One album he looked through again and again. It was from his wedding. It was a small wedding. Mr. Birnbaum’s parents refused to attend. They did not want him to marry Mrs. Birnbaum because she wasn’t from America. She was born in Egypt. But Mr. Birnbaum was in love. He married her and they were very happy together.
Sarah Spitzer and Bill Steinberg missed seeing Mr. Birnbaum in synagogue. His seat in the back row was empty. They spoke about him when they drank coffee with the Rabbi and his partner, Michael. "Someone should try to talk to Mr. Birnbaum," Sarah Spitzer told the Rabbi.
But who would try to talk to Mr. Birnbaum?
The Rabbi decided that he would try. He drove to Mr. Birnbaum’s house.
He rang the doorbell. Mr. Birnbaum opened the door just a crack to see who it was.
"Hello, Mr. Birnbaum!" the Rabbi said. But Mr. Birnbaum shut the door. The Rabbi rang the doorbell again. "Mr. Birnbaum, I want to talk to you! " the Rabbi exclaimed, "I know that you are still upset!"
This time Mr. Birnbaum opened the door. He waved his finger in the rabbi’s face. "I don’t want to talk." Mr. Birnbaum said. "I don’t want to have anything to do with you people!" "Why?" the Rabbi asked. "A man should be with a woman! Isn’t that the way that God meant it to be? How could you, a rabbi, live with a man?"
"I believe that God wants people to be with the people that they love," the Rabbi said, " and I love Michael. I was all alone before I met him. But Michael changed my life and I love him with all my heart and he loves me. That is what God wants."
Mr. Birnbaum turned his head and closed the door. He sat down in his chair and looked through his photo albums. As he looked through the pictures, he thought about some of the words that the Rabbi had said-- "God wants people to be with the people that they love." Mr. Birnbaum thought about his wife. He had once said those exact words to her. He said them on their wedding day.
The next week at services, as the Rabbi sang "Oseh Shalom," he looked out to the back row of the synagogue.
Just then, Mr. Birnbaum walked in the door. He found his old seat, sat down and whispered "hello" to Sarah Spitzer and Bill Steinberg.
As soon as the the service was over, Mr. Birnbaum walked up to the Rabbi.
He looked into the Rabbi’s eyes. "Shabbat Shalom!" he said. They shook hands.
This made the Rabbi very happy.


In Trust

Heather Grennan Gary, an Indiana based writer has an excellent piece on multifaith education in this month's In Trust magazine. It gives those outisde of the seminary world a better idea of the work that we do and the impact that it is having beyond New York. From the article:

This was particularly impressive for the Church of God group, which included several Latino students. "It was wonderful to have them go to a synagogue for the first time ever and meet a Latino rabbi," said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for Multifaith Education in NewYork City, who helped organize the visit. "It broke so many stereotypes. They were really engaged and they felt very welcome."


Theater Review: Dai by Iris Bahr

Shrapnel in the front row

During the war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, I called my cousin who lives in a small suburban town north of Tel Aviv. "It is surreal," she said. "The children are going back and forth from the bomb shelter to the pool."

Israel's paradox is well known — on the one hand, it is a war-scarred nation in a region increasingly populated by religious extremists who own explosives. On the other hand, it is a place with exceptionally good weather where kids play in the pool while their parents sip iced coffee and discuss Almodovar's latest. On a bad day, the two realities collide.

Collision is at the heart of Iris Bahr's masterful new theater work, "Dai" ("Enough"), at Culture Project in New York. Appropriately, "Dai" is staged in the same theater that gave birth to Sarah Jones' "Bridge and Tunnel," the solo piece that went on to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run.

Artistically and thematically the pieces are identical twins — a series of immigrant tales told through simple costume changes, dialect humor, and both gender and racial role-plays.
Both women talk fast, have talent to burn and know how to vacillate between humor and pathos before you realize that you've been taken for a ride. Like "Bridge and Tunnel," in "Dai" the personal becomes political, and you are sucked in by the energy, the stories, the language, and the performer.

But while Jones' work hung on a poorly constructed back-story regarding the police and a Pakistani family, Bahr's work is rooted in the visceral, explosive premise that all her characters are about to be obliterated in a suicide bombing. This device, in a lesser play, would seem like an easy way to draw loose ends to a resolution. But under Will Pomerantz's superb direction each thunderous death of a character is a minor revelation. Bahr creates and destroys an Israeli woman visiting home from her exile in Long Island, an Israeli kibbutznik father, a newly Israeli solider from Manhattan, an opinionated Orthodox woman with seven children, a shrewd Russian Israeli prostitute, and a spunky Israeli ecstasy dealer.

More interesting, though, are the non-Israeli characters she places in Tel Aviv. She plays a half-Syrian BBC reporter, a gay German furniture designer, a Latina actress, a divorced Palestinian college professor, and a Southern-twanged American Evangelical. Bahr, who has guest-starred on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," had the audience doubled over in laughter throughout the show.

Only the American Evangelical comes off as a caricature. (It is clear that Bahr wants him in the story, but is having a hard time finding a way to identify with him.) But all the other characters that populate the Tel Aviv coffee shop have depth and texture — you feel for them, you want to hear more from them.

So what does one take away from a show in which such a mix of characters spill their life stories? Bahr does not leave you with a political vision for the Middle East. But like all solo performers who successfully take on multiple roles, the implicit political message is that we can embody and understand one another.

Bahr, who served in the Israeli Army, understands Israel — Israel as the refugee camp and the high-tech hub, the promised land and the war-torn wilderness — and her artistic brilliance is that she can bring us into that understanding in the context of an 80-minute romp in a mythical café.


Judea Pearl

Last week I had dinner with a man whose son was beheaded by Islamic extremists. Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl, is an Israeli scientist who loves to talk about artificial intelligence and world music but has, because of his son's brutal murder, found himself abandoning computers to speak to the hearts of people.

It has been almost four years, and the mourning process for Judea, for his wife, for his daughter-in-law, has been one in which they have tried with all their strength to turn anger and rage into kindness and compassion.

The foundation they set up in Daniel's name is symbolic of their attempt to remember Daniel and perpetuate his legacy: It helps journalists to understand different cultures, promotes peace through music education and performance, and fosters Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Judea himself has traveled across the United States with Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar, to help people to understand both the similarities and differences between Muslims and Jews. The foundation's work is deeply inspiring — and on a personal level, meeting Judea forces the question "Would I have the strength to work for peace if I were in his shoes?"

In synagogues around the world, we recently chanted the story of Noah and the great flood. Noah, we read, was "great in his generation." It sounds like a wonderful bit of praise, right? But the rabbinic commentators make the point that it was relatively easy to be righteous in such a generation — when everyone around you is murderous, virtue is simply keeping one's hands clean.

The great Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, takes this idea even further. The Zohar says: "When God said to Noah, 'The end of all flesh is come before Me,' Noah said: 'What will You do with me?' But he did not pray for mercy for the world, as Abraham would pray for the city of Sodom. This is why the Flood is called 'the waters of Noah' (Isaiah 54:9) — he is culpable for them, because he did not appeal for mercy on the world's behalf."

How can we understand this mystical teaching? In a world bloodied by terrorists — those who purposely kill the innocent to send a signal of their ruthlessness, we may have a tendency to be like Noah and simply worry about our own hides. Abraham calls us to ask, "What does this mean for humanity?" Abraham is not from Sodom. For him, the Sodomites are foreigners, strangers, other. Yet, he prays that they will be understood.

The more the world edges to the "end of all flesh," the more we must be like Abraham, pleading for mercy on behalf of humanity. Meeting Judea Pearl, I got a glimpse of someone who is doing just that. It gave new meaning to my daily prayer "Blessed is the Holy One, shield of Abraham."

For more of the pieces I've penned for UPI, click here.


Face to Face featured in Jewish Week

I spent the last couple of days with Avi and Saleh -- had a great time, even took them for falafel at Beyond Pita in Montclair before they flew out of Newark. They were amazing speakers - kudos to Carolyn Slutsky for telling their story.

‘Peace Has To Start Somewhere’ Israeli and Palestinian teens in dialogue program for youth of different faiths hit New York with hopeful message.

Carolyn Slutsky - Staff Writer

Avi Gordis had never been in a mosque and Saleh Alzajary had never been in a synagogue, but both teens, a Jew and a Muslim on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had one thing in common: neither had ever been in a church before, either.This past weekend, the 17-year-olds visited two New York churches, along with three synagogues, in order to spread the word about Face to Face/Faith to Faith, a program the two participated in during the summer of 2005.“During prayers at my mosque we don’t talk or sing, so everything was different,” said Alzajary of his experience at St. James’ Church in Manhattan. In honor of All Saints Day the names of those who had died were read, and Saleh found himself moved. The two also visited Central Synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Sholom and Kehilath Jeshurun, speaking to congregants and observing the different religious traditions.Face to Face was started in 2000 to bring students from Israel, Northern Ireland and South Africa together in upstate New York for two weeks in the summer to discuss their conflicts and learn from each other. Students then return to their “homegroups” and continue the work of improving relations between them and helping their communities.Alzajary and Gordis were in New York recently to help the program find donors and supporters as it tries to expand its influence in the New York area, educating congregants and “spreading the word of how you make peace happen” as Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, a co-director of Face to Face, put it.“I hope eventually every community in New York City will be able to say ‘We’ve sent a teenager to Face to Face,’” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, which runs the program. “Our mission is that small groups over time can make a big difference. That’s the ethos of the program.”Alzajary and Gordis live a mere five minutes away from each other in Jerusalem, but say they would never have met had it not been for Face to Face. Since returning from the program, the two, together with 10 others in their homegroup, have done volunteer work and created original programs to help their communities. In one such program, one Jewish and one Arab student paired up to take their families on tours of the security fence that separates Jews from Arabs in Jerusalem. “This started a new era where people get involved with each other,” said Alzajary of the families. “Now Israelis and Palestinians don’t mix, but by doing this tour they got a chance to talk to each other and talk about issues.” The families have also been meeting regularly, as have parents in the other conflicted countries when their children have brought the program home. “The parents’ dialogue group is changing the individual but also changing community systems through exposure to the other,” said Rev. Henderson.Back in Jerusalem, Alzajary also visited Gordis’ all-boys Orthodox school, though Gordis worried that his classmates would disrespect Alzajary and didn’t want to put his new friend in a bind.But despite Gordis’ misgivings, his peers were open to meeting Alzajary, and all the boys asked each other difficult questions about their respective places in Israeli society. “I believe Face to Face is the first step toward peace,” said Gordis. “Before [the program] I was afraid of every Palestinian, but after, I started to believe there is hope to end this conflict.”In New York last week, the two spoke to congregants in the various synagogues and churches they visited, talking about the program and its impact on their lives. At Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein said of the encounter, “I think meeting people of good will with whom you do not agree is usually helpful because you see a human side to the other argument.” He said his community received the boys warmly, despite little previous exposure to those from the other side of the conflict. However, while he considers himself an optimist, he sees little hope for a resolution in the near future to the problems plaguing the Israelis and Palestinians.The experience overall, he said, was “good, and very sad.” Gilbert Kahn, a congregant at KJ who learned about Face to Face while working with Auburn Theological Seminary on issues such as divestment and brought the program to the attention of Rabbi Lookstein, said he thought Face to Face was useful and meaningful.“I don’t think anyone’s naïve about what’s going on in the region but [it’s good to] see motivated boys developing friendships,” he said, adding that no one was sweeping any tough issues under the rug in the quest to be friends. “One could become a doctor and one a rosh yeshiva,” he continued about Alzajary and Gordis, “but they’ve touched each other personally as well as substantively.”Rabbi Brenner, Rev. Henderson and others at Auburn hope to grow the program in New York in the coming years, and are recruiting Jewish, Christian and Muslim students from schools in the area. Brick Presbyterian, the other church the boys visited last week, has provided a grant for further interfaith dialogue, and Auburn plans to establish an interfaith youth leadership council soon with this funding. Rabbi Brenner spoke to the long history in Jewish tradition of relating to “the other.” “There are a lot of places within Jewish history that say ‘the Jewish community exists in a wider world and we need to develop an ethic about how we relate to [it],” Brenner said. “Right now … a lot of Jews who are in more traditional Jewish communities need to be given the opportunity to have an encounter with the religious other. I’m very much thinking about how more traditionally raised kids can have safe encounters in which they can articulate their Judaism to the other and listen to the life story of someone who is a Muslim or Christian.”As for the boys, who returned to Israel Tuesday, they know the program will stay with them long after they grow up. Gordis, who will enter the army next year, said, “Face to Face isn’t about having the same opinions and agreeing, but respecting opinions and learning to live with each other.”Alzajary, who will soon be a university student, agreed. “Our group is trying to work toward dialogue rather than demolishing the other side,” he said.And sounding more like the teenager he is, Gordis added, “Me and Saleh are big believers that peace has to start somewhere.”


A Response to "Stem Cells and the Sixth Day of Creation"

There is nothing more gratifying for a writer than to have a total stranger read a piece and respond with both a phone call and another piece of writing. A Texan, Alex Lukats, read my stem cell essay on UPI and called me in my office. Then he sent me a piece that he was inspired to write. He granted me permission to share it with you.

Here it is:

I am in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. What I have ahead of me is possible bladder removal, a feeding tube and a final stay in a nursing home. I have a family too. A wife who goes to work every day, loves me and helps dress me when she can; a mother who has unconditionally loved me from my first day on earth; a sister who is always there for me and a father that fought for me up until the final days of his life.

We have Christian values and believe that God is here to help us in bad times. Every sperm and every ovum do not produce a child. If one or two cells can be salvaged from a disposal and helps to create a modality that may save the little life I have left, there would be no sin committed.

If my own cells are used they may have a genetic defect and just propagate more of the same problems I already have.

Certain people have melded into the religious world and made us think they are our friends. The sad truth is that we are being used and subverted for political ends that have nothing to do with faith or charity. Some think leading is standing in the way and holding on to undeserved power. It is not! It could be a very cruel way of killing the ill and infirmed.

Insurance Companies don’t mind because they don’t have to pay the research, some drug companies don’t mind, some doctors don’t mind because they get to treat symptoms indefinitely and undertakers don’t mind because they will get the business in the end.

If you are lucky enough to have a healthy child think about that child suffering falling onto death in your hands. That is what my mother is doing.

When you go to vote, think about the true family values of that candidate and what they really want and what they have allowed this country to become and where they really want to take us.

Conservatism doesn’t include allowing innocents to die in nursing homes or on endless battlefields fighting endless battles for unwilling peoples.

Alex Lukats


Total Eclipse of God

Reverend Herb Daughtry, an African-American pastor in Brooklyn famous for his "Marry Baby Daddy Day" has left three messages now on my machine. I tried to call him back twice, reached his assistant, and we fell into in an overtime game of phone tag. "My heart and head are telling me to act now on Darfur," he said when we finally got in touch.

This metaphor is apt — when genocide looms, and governments can't work with others to prevent further bloodshed, the communication somehow breaks down. With news that UN envoys are now being thrown out of Sudan, it is no wonder that Darfurians are in a state of despair.

And what do we in the U.S. spend our time talking about when the topic of Africa rolls around? Madonna's newly adopted son from Malawi. Will she go on Oprah? Yes! Will she do a photo shoot with her new son for Vanity Fair? Stay tuned. Perhaps we are suffering from "save Darfur fatigue."

Daughtry has a simple and moving idea to remedy our syndrome — a Sabbath for Darfur in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians reflect over a weekend, in prayer and action, for the sake of the two million displaced, malnourished people of Darfur. But Daughtry has his obstacles. Why should Christians and Jews spend their time focused on atrocities committed by Muslims against Muslims? Shouldn't Muslims be the ones who are praying and acting to end this bloodshed? Isn't Christian and Jewish concern for Muslims simply a veiled critique of Islam?

I want to suggest that the plight of the Darfurians crosses religious boundaries. We have already heard reports of massacres and brutal sexual violence from Darfur and most experts sense that another wave is already underway. Whenever the world looks on at a situation of this magnitude and feels helpless to stop it, or even to simply feed the hungry, we experience what the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once called the "eclipse of God."

In the years after the Second World War, Buber saw that the promises of modernity had fallen flat, and that even with more technological communication, we were growing more distanced from one another's humanity. Needless suffering of non-combatants, particularly of women, children and the frail elderly, eclipses the presence of God.

For more on Darfur see my column this week running on UPI....



Yesterday I spoke to AP news at a prayer vigil outside of the Sudanese embassy to raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur - a humanitarian crisis which has only gotten worse over the past few weeks and one which is threatening the lives of over two million Darfurians. To my left in the grey suit is Yahya Osman of the Darfur Rehabilitation Project - he is a Darfurian who is doing everything he can to mobilize the U.N. With the white Kupa is Imam Talib of the Moque of Islamic Brotherhood. In the Black cap is Rev. Herb Daughrty, organizer. To his right is Ammiel Hirsch, rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I've written a piece for UPI that I hope will run Monday.

In other news, my Depavaali greetings are in a bizarre assortment of well wishes over at the Hindu American Foundation.


Hold the phone! Reb Blog celebrates 4,000 unique visitors!

What better way to celebrate than by posting this delicious Heschelalia.

Thank you all for visiting and reading, and passing things on.


Stem Cells: A Jewish Approach

Monsters and Critics, a news blog in the UK, picked up my essay on stem cells for their OUTSIDE VIEW column. I hope that this piece gets out there -- more people need to hear about Sen. Brownback's campaign to spread misinformation on the progress of stem cell research.

In other news, last week I was seated (thanks Alison) at a dinner with Judea Pearl, father of the late Daniel Pearl. Daniel was being honored by the Temple of Understanding. Judea was a powerful speaker, and he passionately critiqued Ahamadinejad for not knowing history -- "Jews are not from Germany. We were formed at Sinai!" Two Israeli violinists played to honor Pearl- a maginficent tribute to both the son and father. I urge folks to visit the Daniel Pearl Foundation site. Amazing work.


Reb Blog Rocks Out

For all those interested in hearing a group of New Jersey hipsters rocking out to the Nusrat Fathah Ali-Khan - esque version of Psalm 150, this podcast might do the trick. This here rabbi sings his heart out, sometimes on key. Enjoy.


New Seminary? Attention all idol worshippers!

Here is a contest that should win an award for the wackiest interfaith project ever: An art competition entitled the "Faces of God" by the New Seminary that will be put up at the United Nations in which there is an award for: "Best Representation of The Divine Universal Presence US $2000"

That's right folks, now is your chance to draw God and strike it rich! Yes, if you can draw God really well now is your chance to win two thousand U.S. dollars!!!

This is the kind of misguided interfaith mishmash that gives all interfaith projects a bad name.


The Cartoon Controversy: A Jewish Perspective

Respecting the Sacred

Delivered at the Iftar of the Interfaith Dialog Center
Hilton Hotel - Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey
October 10, 2006
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

E akshem la. First off, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Dr. Levent Koc, and to all the supporters of the Interfaith Dialog Center. It was my great pleasure to join the Iftar of the Turkish Cultural Center last week in Manhattan at the Waldorf –Astoria and to hear dignitaries such as Senator Hilary Clinton as they took the podium. But to be honest, I feel a lot more at home right here in the Garden State. The food is just as good, you all are much more relaxed and better looking than the Manhattan crowd, and I do not have to pay $45 to park my car.

Our topic tonight is respecting the sacred. It sounds like a noble idea. But what do we mean by the sacred? Or we could ask the question in another way: What is sacred in your community? And how did you learn to see certain objects as sacred?

When I think of that question, I think of my earliest memories. I think of the white tablecloth my mother would spread out on the table for holidays and the Sabbath. I think of the prayer shawl, the tallit, my father would drape over his shoulders. I think of the torah scrolls in the synagogue, which we treated with great respect.

But we can not talk about respecting the sacred without talking about disrespecting the sacred. I want to share two stories that touch on this subject.

Four years ago, a controversial exhibit was opening at the Jewish Museum in New York. I love the museum, and one of my oldest friends works at the museum. And I have also had the wonderful experience to be part of the planning of a particular exhibit at the museum. But this controversial exhibit was raising some difficult issues. The exhibit focused on young artists who used Nazi imagery in their artwork. Knowing that it would spark anger in the community, the directors asked a group of rabbis to preview the exhibit. I happened to be one of them. Most of the pieces in the exhibit were interesting conceptual pieces – a lot of sculpture of one sort or another. It did not anger me in the least bit. But one piece was deeply troubling to me. It made my stomach turn. The piece was a digitally altered photograph. The original photograph, taken by Life magazine’s Margaret Burke White, was a picture of the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. In the picture are a few survivors, malnourished, their bones poking through their skin, lying on wooden barracks. The artists had used Photoshop software to insert himself into the picture, and he was in the barracks, and he was holding a can of Diet Coke. I did not find this funny. In fact, I found it to be profane. That photo was a photograph of a crime scene in which Jewish people were stripped of their dignity, enslaved, and de-humanized. I had the choice: Do I stage a protest outside the museum? Do I call for the museum director’s resignation? Do I write a scathing op-ed? What should I do to stop such a disgrace from occurring?

When I first saw the cartoons printed in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten, I thought about how Muslims might view them. I think that feeling that I had when standing in front of that photoshopped piece helped me to understand. Mohammed is depicted with a bomb in his turban? The one whose name is followed by “peace be upon him” is depicted as a madman?

Many Muslims, around the world, were deeply offended by these sketches. But the media chose to focus on the most violent reactions, and the world watched the flames rise and read the reprts -- fifteen Nigerians were killed in riots, two Afghanis, two Iraqis, a Somali teenager. During that time, many people that I spoke with said : ‘see, they do not believe in the freedom of the press’ or ‘see, they are truly violent’ or perhaps the worst: ‘see, Muslims do not value human life like we do.”

At the time, I spoke with a Muslim friend of mine, Nurah Amatuallah Jeter. Nurah was very upset about the cartoons, but she said: “Sometimes the best thing to do is to just keep quiet. The more people complain the more press these people get. Why spend your time burning flags when people are going hungry?”

In many ways, Nurah is right. But should we keep quiet when something sacred to us is disrespected?

Just this week there was more bad news on this front: Danish state TV on Friday aired amateur video footage showing young members of the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples’ party engaged in a competition to draw humiliating cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.The images, filmed by artist Martin Rosengaard Knudsen who posed as a member of the party for several months to document attitudes among young members, show a number of young people drinking, singing and drawing cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. One cartoon appeared to depict the Prophet Mohammed as a camel, urinating and drinking beer.

I have here in my hand, a cartoon that shows the way in which many people probably view this debate. On one side, what appears to be a Muslim man, represented by an Arab headdress, burns a Danish flag. On the other side a Dane, holds a torch labeled freedom of the press. They are both igniting the world around them. Many feel that this is an issue pitting freedom of speech against the claims of religious truth. It is as if the world is a big football game – the secularists vs. the religious extremists. Who are you rooting for?

I want to suggest that this is a dangerous and narrow-minded way to view the world. Our challenge today, In America and around the world, is to find the right balance between traditional religious values and a society which affords us freedom of expression.

I ask this question first and foremost as a parent. I have three young children at home. It is easy to see freedom at work in their lives. My children have been exposed to a world of television, internet, video games and all the rest. They are also taught by living in a free society that kids can say anything, do anything, and buy anything. And my wife and I ask: How do we educate our children to value that which is holy – not just prayer, study, the festivals and Sabbath days, but their bodies. family relationships, obligations to the community, and to society?

In Hebrew, God’s name is Ha-kadosh – the sacred. And if you simply know that one word, kadosh, that one root, k-d-sh, then you know the sacred. (In Arabic the word for Jerusalem is Al-Kuds – the Sacred, same root.) When my wife and I stood under the wedding canopy more than a decade ago and said our vows, it is called Kiddushin, when I perform any ritual commanded in the Torah I say a blessing with the word Kidishanu, when I mourn I recite the Kaddish, when I enter into the sabbath the time is called kodesh. For Jews, the sacred is not something far off in some sacred mountain hideout or locked up in a box, but is woven into life itself. The sacred is with us here in the food we eat, in our friendship, in our very breath. It is in that context that we try to raise our children.

God is ha-kadosh – the sacred. And we, who are created in God’s image, are vessels for this sacred. For this reason, the greatest disrespect of the sacred is to ridicule, torture, or murder a human being. The other major violation of the sacred is to abuse, or wantonly destroy the fruit trees and earth that enable us all to live and thrive. This is something we are reminded of with the dates of the Iftar dinner.

After God, humans, and the natural world, the sacred in Judaism focuses on those objects which serve to remind us of our connection and obligation to God. The most holy object is the scroll on which we write the Torah. We value language, and the scrolls on which we write the torah, the mezuzot we place on our doorposts, and the tefillin we wear during morning prayer, become signs of God’s presence. For us, teaching our children these words is the primary responsibility of a parent. Literacy is holy, and we celebrate our children’s entrance into the world of books and rejoice when our daughters and sons chant from the Torah for the first time.

If you feel that words are powerful, then you know that they can heal the world or they can tear it apart.

And this takes us back to the controversy over art and cartoons. Art deliberately take us out of the world of words. In some ways, that is their unique gift. The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote that “An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”

Because art is simple, it has emotional power, and it can invoke both tranquility and anger. But it is with both emotions and words that we respond. In the words of Marcel Duchamp, “The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something - like electricity. But the onlooker has the last word.”

We have the last word – our reactions to those who provoke us are vital. And for this reason, dialogue is so important. When I was confronted with the Concentration Camp art that I saw in the Jewish Museum, my emotions wanted a street protest, in fact what I really wanted to do was tear down the artwork. But what I ultimately wanted was a change in people’s hearts – I wanted that which I felt was sacred to be respected as a result of a dialogue. Luckily, I was able to work with some people at the museum to invite in people across faith traditions to discuss the works before the exhibit opened. We then worked on a guide to the exhibit and we spoke with reporters and we wrote op-eds and we got the word out. It was an opportunity to promote understanding. It was a healing dialogue.

And I sense that you here tonight, who support the great work of the Interfaith Dialog Center, are doing the same by hosting this gathering and by supporting works throughout the year that help many Christians, Jews, and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from many nations to understand what it means to be a Turkish – American Muslim. You are doing work of healing. Healing us from the sound-byte culture that grabs our attention for a moment but robs us of our humanity. We do our work because we believe that if we are in dialogue – if we speak to one another, if we learn what each other sees as sacred, then our words have more power than any art or cartoon.

I want to end with a story. Each year, at Auburn Theological Seminary, we sponsor a youth program that brings together Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth from the U.S., the Middle East, Ireland, and South Africa. It is a program called Face to Face/Faith to Faith in which we bring enemies together to the same table. We spend three weeks together in intense dialogue. At one point, I helped to bring all the participants to a Mosque, Synagogue and Church in NYC. In the program, the greatest tension is between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And right after the program this year, war broke out in Lebanon and Israel. But during those intense weeks of bombings and missiles, one of the Israeli participants, a fifteen year old from Jerusalem, sent an email:

“I have a mosque 200 meters away from my house—the mosque of Beit Sira. Every Friday the prayers come out of the mosque and throw stones and patrol bombs at Israeli cars, after their imam washes their brain against us. In the past few years things have become so out of control that the prayers entered my neighborhood and put bombs outside the doors of some apartments. Someone from my neighborhood opened his door when a bomb exploded, and he lost his hand.

Only now I truly understand how unbelievably important Face to Face is because, to be honest, before I came to camp and met all the Muslims who came there, and before I visited a mosque, I was exposed only to the darkest side of Islam.When I came to Face to Face I met the other side of Islam and now I know that peace is possible.”

We need to meet one another Face to Face to know that peace is possible. I thank you all for making this work happen through the Interfaith Dialog Center and I bless you in your efforts build an America where religious freedom and religious diversity are celebrated.


Digital Davenning

A few of my comments appear today in the Jerusalem Post in an article about the effort to gather 600,000 Jewish folks online for a virtual 'communal blessing.' The article is one which relates to a piece I wrote a few years back about the changing nature of the 'sacred' in the digital age.


UPI plus Reb Blog = American Rabbi

UPI will be now publishing some of my essays and other musings in the Religion and Spirituality section each week.
For more, check out: AMERICAN RABBI


Six Characters in Search of a Plot

Last night I was down at Baruch College, checking out my friend Billy Yalowitz's new theater show (written by Muhammed Ahmed Zaher.) The title, Six Characters in search of a Plot, was apt. There was little plot - the show is more a series of impressions on the process of creating political theater b/w Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs when you can't even have a conversation about politics. My friend Hanin Tarabiya from Face to Face was in the show as a 'midwife' - narrator, but the cast members were all upstaged by one performer - Shadi Fakher Eldeen - who gave the piece energy and comedy. In the talk-back he was bouncing off the walls, answering every question, talking into an empty coffee mug. A one-man-show should be in the works.


Lemkin's House

Last night we had a fantastic multifaith panel after the show Lemkin's House by Catherine Filloux. Her play places Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term genocide, into an afterlife in a house hanuted by some of the genocides that occured after the Shoah. Particularly in Rwanda and Bosnia - and spilling over into the current turmoil in Darfur. On the panel, I was joined by Rev. Chole Breyer, an Episcopal priest and writer for Salon and Imam Talib, the leader of the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. I spoke on three things: Genoicide and critiques of genocide in the Torah, Buber's Eclipse of God, and Pharoah's Daughter as the model of 'rescuer' from genocide. Rev. Breyer spoke about Lemkin 'being the other' and being 'the annoying person we are often afraid to be' and Imam Talib, who is writing a book on Darfur, told a Sufi story about a great Quranic teacher who was asked "If you are such a great teacher, than why is the world the way it is?" His answer is "if not for Koran the world would be destroyed." Law can only help us from falling off the cliff. It takes more than law to make us step away from the edge.

The play is strong and well directed and there are even some nice bits of humor - Lemkin's behind the chair puppet show where he chases two spoons with a knife. This is the type of show that you see and the first thought is that every college student in America should see this work.


Poems for the Days of Awe 5767

Old shul in Asbury Park

Old shul in Asbury Park
Blood of Christ Evangelical Church
The mikvah,
Now baptizing
Rosario Mendes
Fourteen years old
Ninth grader
Good in math
Bad skin
The congregation was dying
Not figuratively
Twenty seven funerals in one year
Rabbi Furst again in the Skylark, again with the black suit, Again with his wife "the funeral shoes, not the good ones."
Yes, the soundtrack has changed, but the ruach hakodesh has not left the building.
The choir still sings Halleluyah,
(now to the thump of an electric bass,
praise music they call it)
And the minister stomps his foot on the stage
the same spot grooms once broke cheap thin wine glasses under the chupah.
Forty steps out the fire exit door,
buried four feet beneath the new bar-b-q grill
lies my great-grandmother's rolled up ketubah.
a string tied around the tube,
red, like the one around Rosario's wet pony tail.

High Holiday Supplement

This year's supplement features
Letters from collection agencies
Medical charts
Death notices
Estimates for sewer drain repair
Letters of rejection
Three thousand moronic op-eds from the Wall Street Journal written by Republican party has-beens with overblown titles like 'senior strategic analyst' at think tanks in suburban Virginia with names like heritage, patriot, liberty, or apple pie. Please turn now to the supplement As we read together,
An advertisement from the British Petroleum Corporation
About one of their fabulous new 'green' initiatives
About how they care
For the planet
For the earth
For the future generations
See, they even care enough to present this ad in the color green
And the language sounds like prayer
Why bother with worn-out hymns?
Clunky psalms?
when you can read committee approved,
focus-group tested ad copy like this?

Tikkun Olam

In the zombie movie
When the teenagers discover the house of zombies
And the smart girl runs to a pay phone and calls the cops
And the cops come
And they eat the cops
And then an ambulance comes
And they eat the medics
and right after they suck out the ambulance driver's brains
the zombie guy grabs the receiver of the CB radio,
presses the button and says in that gravely zombie voice:
"Send more paramedics"
And you remember that one line
And say it over and over again
And as it grows,
To be one of those lines that you say to yourself
It is not about zombies
But about that state of the planet,
How we walk around half-dead, sucking the life out of everything, The earth, The animal kingdom, Our fellow humans.
And you imagine yourself as God, enthroned, on high,
looking out over this accident scene,
"send more paramedics."

Second Day of Rosh Hashannah Afternoon

Avinu Malkeinu
Still ringing through his head,
He flips through the channels,
Until he spots the royal purple and gold
(yes, he's a Vikings fan. Long story.)
Do you sit on that throne on high eating Tostitos from a bag? Drinking Budweiser's from a heavenly tall boy can?
Awaiting a turnover or touchdown?
Letting your gas fly at will?
Have compassion on this team.
They have an aging quarterback.
Their special teams aren't so special.
They are already expecting a losing season.
Answer them.
Do with us charity and lovingkindness.
Simple acts -
A nice wind for a fifty yard field goal,
when the sideline refs bring the chains on the field, let them stretch just a bit, a two-point conversion now and then
Save us.
From the shame of losing,
From the projected failure,
From sneaking a peek at one of those books on male depression with names like Lonely Warrior and The Pain Within, From our lethargy and laziness,
The sense of being worthless that pursues us each yard,
Wraps around our waist and tries to drag us down.
Our Father, Our King
Help us make it into the end zone.

Why Are You Troubled?

A new translation of a work by Solomon Ibn Gabirol
(11th century Jewish poet, Andalusia)
Why are you so troubled and anxious, my soul?
Be still and dwell where you are.
When you think that the earth can fit into your hand,
you won't, my ship caught in a storm, get far.
Better than wandering from place to place
is sitting at the feet of the Holy One;
if you protect yourself from the will of men you'll flourish and surely see the reward for righteous acts.
If your desire is like a walled city,
a siege will bring it down in time:
You have no earthly possession that is forever in this world - so wake for the future generations, awake.

-(C) 2006 Daniel S. Brenner



After the 9/11 ceremonies I met with Dr. Mohammed Essawi and the faculty of Al-Qasemi Academy from Baaka El Garbia, Israel. It was a wonderful hour with an inspiring group of Muslims from Israel who are working on coexistence education. (thanks to Trinity's Rev. Hoke and the AJC's Ari Gordon for making this meeting happen.)

From there, my 9/11 themed week continued with a trip to Montreal to participate in the 'World's Religions after 9/11' conference sponsored by McGill. (I'll post my speech when I finish the edits.) The conference drew about 1,300 folks, and a few more thousand showed up when Deepak Chopra took the stage for a ridiculous power point presentation in which he summed up all of religious and spiritual thought in five minutes or so. But he was funny during the Q & A session. Much more impressive was Karen Armstrong, who spoke with great clarity about the Middle East. I also got to meet Harold Kasimow, a student of Heschel's who teaches at Grinnell. He edited the book on Heschel's 'No Religion is an Island' that has been a great resource for me in this work.


The Bell of Hope

Tommorow morning, the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks I'll be with a group of New York City religious leaders: 
Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, who are joining together to ring
a bell at Trinity Wall Street, a few short blocks from Ground Zero. 
Apparently ABC Good Morning America will be airing the 8:35 ceremony. 
It is hard to believe that it has been five years. It was all so surreal.
I remember looking down from 28th Street watching the first bellows of smoke rise up, thinking
that maybe a commuter plane had hit the building, and that a few people
might have died. By the time I got to work, one of the towers had fallen. Then I watched
as every Emergency vehicle in the city headed downtown. When the second tower fell,
I left work and began to walk. Some people were laughing, saying how great it was to get
off of work and how they were going to some bar. Then a guy with a radio told me that more
planes were in the air. Noone knew what to do. I ran past the Empire State Building, looking up, thinking that it might be hit. I ended up going down to Chelsea Piers to volunteer in a makeshift triage. We waited all night, with latex gloves, for the victims. But noone came.



Tikve Frymer-Kensky Zichrona L'vracha

I just read the news that one of my most beloved teachers, Tikve Frymer-Kensky passed on to the next world. Tikve, who we once dubbed the red-hot Mesopotamian Momma, was a wondorous teacher. She gathered us on the back porch of her suburban Philly home and told us the Gilgamesh Epic, translating Sumerian terms in a sing-song. Her most notorious moment came when she asked us to draw the outline of an uncurcumsized penis on the chalkboard so that she could make a point about the religious significance of curves. She taught us to see YHVH as a synthesis of goddess and god, not in kabbalsitic terms, but in historic ones. A brilliant scholar and a first-rate teacher is mourned today. May all those who mourn find comfort.

From her bio:

Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s areas of specialization include Assyriology and Sumerology, biblical studies, Jewish studies, and women and religion. Her most recent books are Reading the Women of the Bible, which received a Koret Jewish Book Award in 2002 and a National Jewish Book Award in 2003; In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth; and Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman’s Spiritual Companion. She is also the English translator of From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven by Ari Elon (Alma Dee, original Hebrew).


Spiritual Audacity

Hezbollah, Heschel, and Hope
Rabbi Daniel Brenner
August 27, 2006
Presbyterian Church
Rensellearville, New York

Last summer, Lisa and I and our three children were in Israel, visiting a kibbutz on the border of Lebanon to see my cousins’ new home. It was Friday night, and we were seated around a table on the porch watching the sun set over the green hills. There were three generations gathered at the table and we all sang the Sabbath hymn to the messengers of peace. We drank a local wine, and after the meal my cousins’ step-father pulled three different quarts of ice cream from the freezer. At that moment, we were all faced with the difficult decision of which flavor to choose—especially the dieters among us, who pledged publicly that they were “just going to have a little taste.” Those of us paralyzed by the thought of deciding which flavor to choose bypassed the decision making process altogether and indulged in all three. It was a time of familial love and abundant celebration in one of the most calm and tranquil places imaginable. The next morning, as we walked the grounds of Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, my eight-year old sons pried open the metal door of a rusty bomb shelter and peeked in. “Can we go down there?” they asked. There was broken glass on the steps, so like any half decent parent I said no – it was not a place for children. I explained to them what a shelter was in historical terms, saying “a long time ago there were missiles. When the missiles came people would go down there to be safe.” The shelter looked like a relic, like an old piece of agricultural equipment, or an obsolete adding machine, it seemed that its’ purpose had been fulfilled long ago and now it sat gathering dust.

How wrong I was. This summer, children across northern Israel cowered in shelters. Hundreds of thousands of them either fled from the war or hid below it. Over three thousand rockets landed in Israel, killing Jews, Christians, and Muslims, destroying 6,000 homes, forcing a half million people to flee. Rockets hit Kibbutz Gesher Haziv. A few miles North, Lebanese children were also being introduced to dark nights interrupted by sonic booms and artillery fire. And the children of Lebanon suffered greatly. A new generation is now forged by fear of war, images of war’s destruction of human life, and countless nightmares.
In the words of Lamentations: “my groans are many and my heart is sick with sorrow”
I want to speak today about war, and about what it does. Not about the tragic toll it takes on victims, or the enormous economical and ecological impacts, but on the effect of war on the way in which we as a society and as individuals view our fellow human beings. If you watched CNN or FOX, listened to NPR or talk radio, read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal this summer, then you might have asked yourself, in your heart: How can people do this to other people? Are claims to territory or ideology irreconcilable? Are humans ever truly capable of peace? Has there been any progress as we move through history? Are we going backward? Have we learned anything?

I have seen the photographs of the victims of this war and my heart has been overrun by sadness, mourning, and despair. Looking at Lebanese families trapped in rubble or Israeli families in the emergency room, I sympathize with each victim of this war.

But as I speak about compassion, I also want to be honest about my anger. My gut response at the beginning of this war was rage toward the militants who distort Islam for political gain, use petroleum and heroin profits to fund their guerilla armies and dance in the streets celebrating the killing of Jews. Launching rockets at civilians from civilian targets is particularly reprehensible.

My greatest fear, as a Jew, is that the world does not want coexistence and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, but secretly wishes that Israel, and the Jewish people altogether will disappear. The more Muslims worldwide make the liberation of all of Palestine their main media sound-bite, and removal of Jews from soil they claim to belong to Muslims, the more people believe that militant Muslims will simply simmer down once the Jews are gone. One need only look at the 3,000 victims of Shia-Sunna violence each month in Iraq to dispel this myth. Or watch the rise once again of the Taliban. On read the paper in Lagos. Or hear the stories of the parents of children who were massacred in Beslan as a result of Chechan separatists. Militants who use Islam as a tool do not wish only for Israel’s destruction, but for a world submitted to their rule.

But I am not here today to dwell on politics.

Months ago, when there was relative calm in Israel, I had planned to deliver this sermon on the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s great rabbis, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was a mystic, a modern Chasidic master, and a passionate spiritual soul. When the war in Lebanon broke out in July, I thought that I’d have to change my sermon topic. How could one speak of esoteric mysteries, about the awe produced by a sunset when bombs were falling from the skies? But the more of Heschel I read this summer, the more I realized that he had something important to say about humanity and war. Though he wrote very few overtly political essays, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not write a book addressing the holocaust, the existential questions of war were the questions that animated his theology, most likely because he was a young boy during the first World War and a refugee of the second.

Today, as we sit in this beautiful sanctuary, it is good to turn to a voice from another era for some spiritual guidance.

So, who was Heschel and what did he have to say?

Heschel was born in 1907, the son of a rabbi and a descendent of a long line of great rabbinic minds. The youngest of six children, he was trained in a traditional Polish Yeshivah where he excelled in his studies and by sixteen his community already dubbed him a rabbi. But his heart yearned for something more than the provincial religious world. He began writing poetry, and sending it to a secular Yiddish journal at the age of 17. Many of the men in the community felt that he should be married off young so that he could regain his focus on the fold – but his mother refused to give in to their demands. 4 Instead, she sent Heschel off to do what his heart desired, to study in Vilna. In Vilna, Heschel had what we would call today an extreme makeover. He shaved off the beard that marked him as Chasidic Jew and spent time hanging out with the late-night literati and artists that made up the Jewish worker’s union. But in a secular, urban environment he retained the soul of a mystic. Here are some of the words of poetry he wrote during those early years:

I don't want to plaster posters of God on all wide-open street corners, but instead, celebrate the birthday of eternity in the tiny corner of every moment.

Viewing the poverty of the city, he wrote:

"God's tears lie on the cheeks / of shamed, weakened people. / Let me wipe away His lament."

Heschel eventually earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin, choosing as his Ph.D. thesis a long reflection on the spiritual, social and political message of the prophets. Recognizing Heschel to be one of the rising stars in Europe, a prominent Reform Jewish scholar in the U.S. was able to arrange his escape. Heschel went off to England, then to the U.S. As he began to teach in the U.S. he moved from the Reform seminary in Cincinnati to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, located across the street from Auburn Theological Seminary. Heschel thrived in New York. But back home, Heschel’s mother and sisters were murdered in the camps. Writing about his own life, Heschel remarked:

I speak as a person who was able to leave Warsaw, the city in which I was born, just six weeks before the disaster began. My destination was New York, it would have been Auschwitz or Treblinka. I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar of Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil's greater glory.

How can a theologian and poet who has enjoyed the great academies of Germany explain a God who sits by while a nation murders 1.2 million children? What type of God would allow such a thing? 6 In reaction to the holocaust, many Jewish philosophers and theologians, like Eliezer Berkovits, decided to articulate a more rationalist, deistic position – articulating a God who created the world, but since then has hovered above, allowing free will to play its course. Others, like Richard Rubenstein, rejected God’s role in history outright. Heschel, however, took a very different approach.

The altar of Satan of Heschel’s time was a godless, technology driven, racist, fascist nationalist empire – the third Reich. So Heschel set out to preach a God loving, nature attuned, humanistic, democratic, global Judaism. Heschel believed that the holocaust was not God’s failure – but the ultimate human failure – the failure to address evil, the failure to speak out. And who did he choose as his model for ‘the one who speaks out’? The prophets. Particularly Isaiah, Micah, and Amos.

In an essay entitled The Meaning of This War written in February of 1944, Heschel argued:
"We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? . . .
Heschel pointed the fingers at our collective failure to address starvation and economic distress –and he called for introspection. In a few weeks, Jews around the world will join together on Yom Kippur to read one such text, Isaiah 58

5 Is such the fast I desire,A day for men to starve their bodies?Is it bowing the head like a bulrushAnd lying in sackcloth and ashes?Do you call that a fast,A day when the Lord is favorable?6 No, this is the fast I desire:To unlock the fetters of wickedness,And untie the cords of the yokeTo let the oppressed go free;To break off every yoke.7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,And to take the destitute poor into your home.
From the prophets, Heschel articulated a new relationship between God and Man. In Heschel’s vision God created Man, God needed humanity, to redeem the world. Building on the kabbalistic tradition now known by many as ‘tikkun olam’ Heschel taught that being created in the image of God meant living with a profound paradox. To be like God means that we vacillate between polarities of justice and mercy, self and selflessness, we have the choice to destroy life or create life in each moment. And Heschel felt that each human soul is either distanced from God or bringing God into the world. And the key to bring God into the here and now is the ability to experience the deep awe – to feel the transcendent in each moment.

A Chasidic parable:

A young man is immersed in his morning prayers. He wears his prayer shawl, talit, and the leather boxes containing the shema, the tefillin, are strapped to his head and arm. Just then a horse and buggy come down the road. The buggy loses a wheel and crashes. The young man runs outside. He checks to see that everyone is alright, and then he begins to help the driver fix the wheel.

Two rabbis walk by and see the sight. One rabbi says “Does this young man have any respect for the holy prayer garments? He wears them as he stands in the mud and fixes a wheel? What an idiot.” The other rabbi replies. “No, he is a genius. He is showing the world that fixing a wheel in the mud is a holy act!”

Heschel wrote:
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. …(and) … Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.

Back to his life story. Heschel eventually married, at the age of 39, and had a daughter, Susannah, who now teaches history at Brown University. And he took many students on as disciples, my teacher Rabbi Art Green, being one of them. In the early 1960s, he became friends with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and King considered Heschel to be one of his great teachers. When Heschel marched with King in Selma, Alabama, the rabbi told the world “I felt like my feet were praying.”

In the last decade of his life, Heschel rallied against the war in Vietnam. His death, in 1972, at the age of 65, was a great loss to the Jewish people.

But let us return to the questions I raised earlier. What can Heschel teach us at a time like this – a time when we, as a nation are bogged down in what seems like an endless, bloody occupation of Iraq, a disintegrating leadership in Afghanistan, and the threat of confrontation with Iran?

In 1946, Heschel taught the following parable:

A group of inexperienced hikers fall into a pit. They find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes. Every crevice becomes alive with fanged, hissing things. But the more noise they make striking the snakes, the more snakes awake from their slumber to attack. Strangely enough, one man stands aside from the fight, running back and forth. His friends yell out “Why aren’t you fighting? He calls back: We’ll die before we kill all these snakes. I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.”

My fear is that so many feel that escalation is inevitable – we see Hezbollah racing to re-arm, Israel preparing for round two, America is sword rattling on the border of Iran, Iran pursuing military exercises, Bin Ladin is sending out more videotapes. What we need is someone to say – is there a way out of this pit?

I am an optimist. I believe that in two years we will have a President in the U.S. who is able to work with the international community, who can restore our reputation as a nation that places a high value on human rights. I believe that there are leaders in Iran who do not wish to sharpen the swords of Hezbollah – and that they will, G-d willing, talk some sense to Ahmadinejad. And I know for a fact that there are millions in Israel who desire only peace, and are willing to make great sacrifices to forge a lasting two-state solution.

But to get to a world where tensions de-escalate will take the continued efforts of each one of us here. Snakes are real, and sometimes we must stop them before they bite. But we must learn to move quietly through the world, to continue in our efforts to understand the other, to reach out to the other with compassion, and to invite the other to the table.

I conclude with some words from a young Iraqi teenager I met this summer. Abdullah was a participant in Auburn’s Face to Face/Faith to Faith multifaith youth leadership program. In July, we walked down to Ground Zero together, and spoke as we stared into the pit where so many had lost their lives. At the end of the two-week summer program, he wrote the following poem about the importance of listening:

JUST listen…

I speak out of sadness and frustration,
Because since the beginning of creation,
Peace was lost in translation,
And people stopped listening and started accusation,
And friendship forgot its beautiful sensation
When pride in our hearts began invasion,
JUST listen…

Just listen and with a smile in your face begin,
And tell me if pureness shouldn’t come from within?
JUST listen…

Waiting for us to stop taking things personally,
And attacking others directly,
And fighting hard eternally,
This is not humanity,
And it’s driving us to INSANITY…

Yet, for all of that, I will say and sing,
That goodbye…is only the beginning,
If we listen…

My prayer today is that we will learn to listen, and in doing so, perhaps we will fulfill the promise of Isaiah, ‘If you banish the Yoke from your midst, offer compassion, satisfy the hungry, then your light shall shine in the darkness.”


back from Mount Pisgah

What is summer without a strenuous mountain hike that leads to a chilly waterfall? Here is one of the many views we took in as we traversed the Blue Ridge Parkway on our recent trip to my homestate - North Carolina. Other highlights included chanting the Book of Lamentations with my parents' chavurah, enjoying the waterpark at Carowinds, seeing my kindergarten and sixth grade teachers at Temple Israel (Ruth Goldberg and Raph Panitz) and eating at Gliberman's Deli!

Now I'm back in Manhattan, trying to prepare for a speech I'm giving in Montreal next month!


In the words of one Israeli teenager...

Below is an email that we just got from one of the Israeli participants in our Face to Face/Faith to Faith program. A ray of hope at a difficult time.

July 27th ---

Hey everybody....

When I lived in a settlement in the West Bank, Fakir, I had very nice neighbors—the Yaakobi family. They had a son, Nathaniel, who was the best friend of my brother Tamir. The mother was Hannah, a very nice woman who worked in my school. The father, Dani, was a doctor. Even after we left we kept in touch with them, especially me, because their cousin is a very good friend, and I kept visiting them all the time. My brother, Tamir, was a very good friend of Nathaniel’s even after we left Fakir.

Yesterday, the father, Dani, was driving in his car when two Palestinian terrorists kidnapped him. They tortured him in the most unimaginable cruel way, and then took his body to their village and abused it, together with other Palestinians. The body was in such a bad situation that only a DNA sample proved that this is really Dani. His body was found in the baggage of his burned car.

Right now all I want to do is to hug Nathaniel. I feel so sorry for him. But I can’t right now, so I'm writing to you. You guys are the first ones I share my feelings with, and I think it says a lot about the special friendship we have. Since I heard Dani was murdered I feel so horrible. It’s like God decided three years ago to make a list of the people I know and to kill them one by one. I'm so tired of the situation here. I'm not talking about the war in Lebanon. I'm talking about the situation with the Palestinians that we have been dealing with for the last six years. I just cannot understand how we, our parents, and our grandparents have let this happen.

How can we, humanity, ignore the monsters that come from the inside of us? How can God create such monsters? How can a human being do that to Dani? Dani was such a simple man. He wasn't a soldier in the battlefield; he was just a man like my father, and your father, who was driving his car to work. How could someone think he is doing any good by killing a man he doesn’t even know? If they want to fight us, they can just fight our soldiers. Why do they fight citizens? Why couldn't they just kill Dani without torturing him and burning his body, while their entire village is helping them and clapping hands?

And, to all the Palestinians from camp, I absolutely do not blame you for what happened. But I'm asking you to do everything you can to stop those monsters from coming out of your society!

Only now I truly understand how unbelievably important this camp is because, to be honest, before I came to camp and met all the Palestinians and Muslims who came there, and before I visited a mosque, I was exposed only to the darkest side of Islam. I have a mosque 200 meters away from my house—the mosque of Beit Sira. Every Friday the prayers come out of the mosque and throw stones and patrol bombs at Israeli cars, after their imam washes their brain against us. In the past few years things have become so out of control that the prayers entered my neighborhood and put bombs outside the doors of some apartments. Someone from my neighborhood opened his door when a bomb exploded, and he lost his hand.

When I came to camp I met the other side of Islam, and the Palestinian people, and now I know that peace is possible.
All that needs to happen is that this side will be the dominant side in government. The problem here is that the worst people in our side and the worst people in the Palestinian side are leading the Middle East. As much as politics disgusts all of us, I think that the best thing that can happen is that people like us will lead the Middle East.
I want to do everything I can to prevent more cases like what happened yesterday to Dani, even if it means I will have to go to the Israeli parliament and meet with people I hate so much every day. The problem in this world is that people like us just talk, but don't do.

Call me naive, but right now I have this huge ambition to be in the Israeli parliament. I'm always so disgusted by the politicians, surrounded by their media advisers, but lately I want to be one. I want to be one because I think that our politicians are not doing enough. The problem is not only in Israel, it's all over the world. The people in camp—each one of them—is so talented, and has so much to give to this world. I really think we should all be as influential as we can. I think it is our duty.

You can all be influential in your own way, but do something except for talking! Because, if you won't, our children and grandchildren will keep coming to peace camps and crying about the situation. Something has to be done to stop this unreasonable killing and violence. And we cannot wait for someone else to do it for us; we need to do it ourselves!


Nimrod Flip Out

As the artillery fire continues to rain down on Israel and Lebanon, I've been reading Etgar Keret's short story collection The Nimrod Flip Out.

Keret has been heralded as the leader of the next generation of Israeli writers, and the stories reflect a post-modern, post-zionist attitude. Oddly funny, the stories often mine the Jewish tradition of fantasy tales and bring up new gems.

One other item worth mentioning is a blog post by the Orthodox Anarchist. http://www.orthodoxanarchist.com/2006/07/to-live-and-die-in-jlm-anarchy-jewish.php

He reflects on the war, anarchy, the current state of zionism, diaspora identity -- a wild ride of a post well worth reading.


Reb Blog surpasses 3,000 unique visitors!

The best part of the latest report is that Reb Blog has been read in 64 countries! Only 73% of readers are U.S. based. The countries include such places as: Norway, Turkey, Estonia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, India, Chile, Mali and Iran. It is great to see that folks are stopping by.


Gurus Gone Wild

This week I've been working on a new project that weds the best of religious documentary film to more traditional topics in education - like, for example, figuring out what films on Buddhism or Hinduism to watch alongside reading Hesse's Siddhartha, or what films on Judaism to watch while reading Elie Weisel's Night or Islam & Reading Lolita in Teheran. I'd love to hear folks ideas about curricula - and we do have a budget to pay teachers $500 to write curricular pieces.

I've posted the ad copy below.

Multifaith Media Project Seeks Submissions on Teaching about Religion

Great teachers, whether in secondary school classrooms or universities, supplement their required reading with films that bring subjects alive for their students. The Auburn Theological Seminary and The Hartley Film Foundation are looking to create film-based resources for teachers who want to help their students to understand America's religious diversity.

Are You a Teacher Who Has Thought About Religion and Film?
If you are a Social Studies, English, History, Civics, or Comparative Religion Teacher who thinks creatively about film and religion, we'd love to hear from you. Have you used a film on Buddhism to explore Siddhartha, or Mohammed: Legacy of the Prophet to teach world history? Or even Groundhog Day to explore Hinduism? The Multifaith Media Project looks to draw upon the wisdom of current teachers to write 500-1500 words as part of comprehensive website for teachers interested in addressing the topic of religion in their classroom. Submissions should meet the following criteria:
Relate to a specific department (Social Studies, Literature, History, etc.)
Reference National and State standards
Refer to select clips of films when possible
If possible, use a combination of fiction and documentary films - especially films from the Hartley Film Archive
Honorarium: Each submission will be reviewed by the panel. All accepted submissions will receive a $500 honorarium and will be published in a web-based curricula resource. Ideas for submissions should be emailed to Josh Borkin at mailto:jbb@aumurnsem.org no later than September 15th 2006.


Book Review time: Fima by Amos Oz

I just finished devouring Amos Oz's Chekov marinated 1991 novel Fima. (a Father's Day gift -- thanks Shosh) The novel is about a divorced poet-political commentator-abortion clinic receptionist who happens to be the son of a cosmetics magnate. His name is Efraim - hence the nickname 'Fima' and he stumbles about Jerusalem and eats quite a bit of bread with jam. Most importantly, he waxes poetic about the legacy of the '67 war and what it has done to the Israeli soul. 15 years after publication, the political ideas are still wet. In fact, in some ways the escalation of violence and the rise of Hamas are foreshadowed... it is a bit chilling that Oz was so accurate about the elusivity of peace. But mostly it is funny and brilliant and it rolls along beautifully and Oz reminds us what it means to be alive in a world that is in a constant state of entropy. Five puffy stickers.


Face to Face/Faith to Faith

Holmes, NY - I'm writing tonight from the summer intensive program of Face to Face/Faith to Faith, the program for college and high school students Auburn runs each summer. The youth are from Belfast, Capetown, Jerusalem and various places across the U.S.

Each year that I come (this is my fourth) the program gets better - mainly because we see kids go from being participants to leaders- in -training to counselors. Over time, you see how much impact a program like this can have on someone.

Today the participants did a 'paper bag' excercise -basically they anonymously react to words like "terrorist" by writing their thoughts down and placing them in a bag. Then they write them all up on a poster and talk. Afterwards they shared plaster of paris masks that they painted revealing how the world sees them and how they see themselves. So far, the discussions have been cordial - which is to be expected on the third day of the program - but things will probably heat up tommorow.


Shabbat - A Reconstructionist Approach

Dear readers,

I wrote this essay three and a half years ago as part of a contribution I was asked to make to a 'how to be a Jew' type of book. My chapter did not jive with the style of the other pieces - or so they said - so I am attempting to rescue it from the ashbin of history by posting it here. Perhaps it will find it's long awaited for audience.


Reconstructing Shabbat: A Memoir

Over a hundred years ago the spiritual leader of Ger, Poland taught that:

“The sabbath completes each thing; it is the fulfillment of all, for it is the root of all life…that is why sabbath is called “rest,” because it returns each thing to its root…All week long we should look forward to this returning to our root and the place of our rest for this is where we truly live.”

I was lucky to have something to base my “making shabbes” on. Growing up in a fairly traditional Jewish home in Charlotte, North Carolina my mom made the best chicken soup south of the Mason-Dixon line, (and still does) served it on china in the dining room, and joined in when dad sang the kiddush over a silver goblet of Manishevitz. My brother, my parents and I spent Friday night in the living room, talking politics or playing chess, and we went to a Conservative synagogue Saturday morning. We’d come home, have a lunch of cold but tasty leftovers, and all walk upstairs to crash in our respective beds for a shnooze. In the summer, when I’d go off to a Jewish camp, I’d do a traditional --no electricity, no writing, no work –Shabbes in the woods. In short, I’ve been blessed with many shabbes experiences in which the day was deeply restful, detached from the stress of the week, and spiritually charged.

But that is not the whole story. Take for example, the time my father and I went on a Friday night to our neighbor’s house to watch the Muhammed Ali – Trevor Burbik fight. Our neighbor’s place stunk of cigars, and we certainly would have preferred to watch at home. But one of my father’s restrictions -- not to turn on the TV in our house on shabbes – could not be violated. Apparently our television set was very religious.

I joke, but the idea that objects themselves need a shabbat is profound. I remember once receiving a button from one of my Orthodox relatives which stressed the message that one should not drive on shabbat. The button had a cartoon of a Herbie-like car lying upside down in a bed, saying “Thank God it’s Shabbos”. Not driving, not turning on or off any electricity, not ripping, or cutting, or writing, or cooking -- these practices are all ones which I have embraced at certain times in my life because they allowed me to simply live in the world without trying to change it. The traditional shabbat, which is guided by a list of thirty-nine prohibited forms of work laid out in the fifth century, has many do’s and don’ts that exist to create boundaries which both block us from “mastering” the world’s objects and from experiencing the minor crises of the weekday.

Take something as simple as going to the playground with your kids. On shabbat those on the traditional side of my extended family will tell their children to go on the jungle gym, but not into the sandbox. Why? The sandbox will encourage building castles, or writing in the sand, both of which should be refrained from. There is another reason one might ask them to avoid the sandbox-- I know from supervising my own children that sandcastles generally result in Dresden like acts of destruction by siblings. Another example is a practice that I find amusing, ripping toilet paper, which is prohibited. Traditional shabbes observers will pre-rip paper and leave it on top of the toilet. How many squares should one rip? These become serious questions.

A traditional shabbat requires intense preparation of not only toilet paper, but of the entire house. The lightbulb in the frig is unscrewed, and all other lights are set in their positions. Food is prepared, water poured into an urn for tea and instant coffee. Crock-pots are filled with soups and stews. One enters a traditionally observed shabbat knowing that all needs are taken care of, all things are in order, and the house can truly be a place of peace. What may sound obsessive actually becomes liberating. Shabbat, observed traditionally, is like walking aboard a cruise ship knowing that all your expenses have been paid.

But here lies the tension in my story– what happens when the restrictions restrict you from something which may indeed be the very thing that gives you rest, completes you, and returns you to your root. That, I imagine, was what boxing was that night for my dad. And that is what gardening, listening to and playing music, watching a movie, cooking a favorite dish, painting, and calling friends on the phone are to me. Not doing these things on shabbat seems like a great loss.

But then I think of the great liberation that shabbat holds when I do withdraw from these things, all of which depend on me changing the world somehow by using technology, electricity or other tools. Times when I just am, and appreciate the world without trying to change it are rare. So why do I need any type of activity when I have a day to simply be with my family and to talk, eat or take a long walk? Or to be alone on that walk, or in a place of worship, reflecting on my relationship to the mundane and Divine.

Resolving these tensions in my life hasn’t been easy.

Take my high school prom night, for example, which fell on Shabbat. I wasn’t going to miss my prom. I had saved money, tediously filing papers at an accountant’s office, to rent a tux. But I also wasn’t going to miss shabbat dinner with my family. It was, for the most part, the only time my family sat down together, and there I was, getting ready to head off for college, knowing that soon regular Friday night dinner with my family would only be a memory. So there I sat, with my red-headed Methodist southern belle girlfriend, decked out in tux and gowns, eating chicken soup with my family, and then an hour later dancing to “Rock Lobster.” I had a great time, but later my girlfriend told me just how weird it was. She could see that I was caught between two worlds.

My care-free attitude about going out on Friday night continued through college. I’d go to Hillel for dinner and then spend the rest of the night shooting pool. Once when I was home during Spring Break, after eating shabbat dinner with my parents, I had gone out to the Double Door Inn, a local blues and rockabilly joint with some friends. We were all a little rowdy, and I ended up on-stage with the band, shaking my hips with one of the back-up singers. During the band’s break, she approached me at the bar and struck up a conversation. Somehow we started talking about religion, and after I told her that I was Jewish, she asked me bluntly (in a deep southern accent) “So what are you doing going out when it is your sabbath?” I was sort of tongue-tied. She told me that if I didn’t think that people should work on the sabbath then I shouldn’t go out and give money to bartenders and others. I tried to rationalize that since I do not live in a Jewish country, such a practice would do very little, but she had me in a corner. How could I go out when a direct result was that others had to work?

These tensions were partially resolved after college when I was studying in Jerusalem. Friday night I’d go to an orthodox shul, often eat Friday night dinner at the home of one of my orthodox teachers, and then return home. Saturday morning I’d go to Gan Sacher, a city park, to play soccer with hundreds of secular Israelis. While the two groups saw one another as perched on opposing ends of a spectrum, I found myself living happily between them. And since everyone had the day off of work, I felt that I was finally at peace with the world. There I was, living in a place where violence is a daily occurrence, feeling a sense of peace. But as a student and an American I could be blissfully idealistic. I did not have to take sides in the secular-religious battle, nor face the constant questioning that non-orthodox rabbis living in Israel must face.

After I got married, and my wife and I moved to Manhattan, our shabbat practice became more traditional. We went to synagogue, refrained from television, radio, using money, answering the phone – the usual stuff. Then after our twins were born we had the one shabbat of my life that I’ll never forget.

It happened during the first month of my twin boys lives. They had come two months early, and were spending their first four weeks of life hooked up to tubes and monitors in tiny incubators. Each day my wife and I shuttled back and forth from work and from our apartment to the hospital. Either way was a fifty-block trek. Lisa wanted to give them breast milk, and I spent a lot of time late at night on the subway delivering the milk in an insulated bag. I contemplated purchasing a traditional white milkman outfit. The first shabbat that came, I wasn’t sure what to do. By that time, we had decided that we were not using money on shabbat, or taking the subway. Friday evening we brought food to the hospital, blessed our children and took a very long walk home. Saturday morning, though, I had a dilemma. My wife was exhausted, but wanted to make sure that the boys got fresh milk. The walk would be over an hour, and the milk would certainly spoil. So instead of taking a cab or the subway, I rode my bicycle, through Central Park, delivering milk to my children.

Now that we have moved to the suburbs, shabbat has become complicated once again. New Jersey will do this to you. And although each week I know that I want to be taken through ritual and sweet noodle kugel to the messianic time that is now, shabbat ain’t easy.

Part of the problem is apparent in the very meaning of the Shabbat. Shabbat literally means “to stop”, yet from one of its first descriptions in the Torah it is spoken of as a day when we are instructed to “shabbat v’yinafash” -- “stop and re-soul”. But how does one “re-soul”?

When I think of “re-souling” I think of the poet-mystics of Sefat in the 16th century who imagined that re-souling in a meditative spiritual practice of coupling with the radiant Divine bride. Those ancient mountain men saw in shabbat a soft, sensual, erotic encounter that completed them. Reading their poems, I must admit that I am drawn to their fantasy -- one in which Shabbat is the romance that sustains life’s commitments.

But mystical romantic fantasies don’t always come to life in suburban New Jersey: The real question is -- How do I do shabbat here? How traditional will I be? How do I structure such a day of rest, and do it each week?

To start off there has to be a structure of do’s and don’ts. And I begin with the questions that set boundaries: Do I have the right balance of solitude, family time, and community interaction on shabbat? Am I disengaged with the things that stress me out? Am I bored and restless? Engaged with Torah learning? Do I feel closer to the Creator? Does attempting a stress-free day actually induce stress?

Before I dwell on myself though, let me say that the shabbat is not about me and my spiritual enlightenment. I am no cowboy or Wu Don warrior seeking shabbat on a lone hilltop. I go into shabbes-time knowing that I am part of a marriage, a family, a community – I am linked to others who are also engaged with shabbat. And for that reason, the choices I make have an impact beyond myself.

But I must begin with the personal, and the weekly struggle to detangle from the reality of my old house that needs repairs, my student loan debts which hound me, my exhaustion, and the endless list of work and family responsibilities that plague me. To enter shabbes is to play a game in which I say: “I now pretend that these are taken care of. ”

And here is how I play:

On my way home from work on Friday afternoon I try to buy flowers for my wife. I also might pick up a few loaves of challah from the organic bakery. Either way, when I come home I am in a different frame of mind than on Thursday.

The first thing I do after I’ve seen my wife and kids is to hide the one object that runs my week- my wallet. I stick it in a drawer, with keys and coins that I’ve fished from coat pockets.

This hiding of the wallet is one of the key themes of my sabbath—to remove myself from the world of commerce. I do this because during the week I am obsessed with it. I love advertising, and am one of those people who watches the Super Bowl for both the football and for the commercials. I am also someone who is jealous of those who have more wealth than I do, and is constantly hatching ways to get rich with one business scheme or another. The reality is that I live in a nation driven to madness by the corporate gurus who vie for control of personal mind-space with an endless barrage of “You'll be happy if you buy me!” (My apologies to all such gurus.) As much as I have come to understand that money is a necessary thing and capable of doing great good, I still think that the object itself is sort of dirty, and I am happy to remove my wallet from view.

So I make a swift retreat from the commercial world on shabbat. There is a great story from Cairo about a local Jewish prostitute who wants to donate a Torah Cover to the synagogue with her name on it, as was the custom of other members. One of the leaders of the community objects, noting that when the ark is opened, she will get free advertising. She is compelled to give it anonymously. The story articulates a deep truth – shabbat as a commercial free zone.

A very important question: What do I wear on shabbat? There was a time when most Jews owned only two sets of clothing -- one for the week and one for shabbat. (When my dad was telling a story about living on a kibbutz in 1950 he once recalled peeling off his jeans and putting on his shabbes pants as a religious act.) On Shabbat I prefer a white button down shirt, and if I’m home I like to wear sandals. If I have time, I follow the ancient tradition of bathing (mikveh) before shabbat. And sometimes, in the summer, I actually jump into the ocean before shabbat, which is truly the best way to go.

Then I’ve got to get my kids ready, (twin eight-year-old boys and a five-year-old daughter) who thank God, behave just as recklessly as children are meant to. But if, as usual, my beloved partner Lisa has begun the cooking by the time I’m home from work, then there is an actual shot that my Friday afternoon will be spent vacuuming and the house will be “presentable” to any guests. It is a mad dash of preparations and somehow we get the kids downstairs with clean faces.

Friday night meals in my home are held in the dining room. (Only time we use the place. Most expensive square feet in the house.) And once we’ve got the kiddush cup out, opened the wine, placed the challah under the cover, the salt nearby, and put out the dishes, we begin.

With the family standing behind her, and the youngest in my arms, my wife Lisa lights the candles, ushering in the shabbat. This moment, when my wife stands before the shabbes candles, is “heavy shtetl”. Strong, independent, pious women before her light the way. And she, from a long chain of women who prayed for the welfare of their families and communities in the moments before they uttered the blessing, channels it all.

When the lights are lit, we sing the classic shabbat hymn “Shalom Aleicem” and this generally leads to an improvised circle dance with the kids. We go around the table in a modified hora.

Next we bless the kids with the traditional blessings. For my two boys: May you be like Ephraim and Menashe, May God bless you, watch over you, shine upon you, and give you peace. And for my daughter “May you be like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah, May God bless you…” As I bless I place my hands on their heads and then give them a kiss.

Although I am a big fan of the poem Aishet Chayil- Woman of Valor, which in a pre-feminist mode recalls the women of the world who sustain life through a tireless devotion to home chores and small business, I generally just walk over and give my wife a kiss. Then I do the traditional blessing over the wine, the kiddush, which I’ve been doing since I was about six years old. We pass the glass around the table and everyone takes a sip.

Next comes washing the hands, with the kvark, the two handled pitcher we spill out three times over each hand, and saying the blessing. Then my boys uncover the challah, bless it, rip it, dip it in salt, and pass it around.

What follows is a nice meal. No frozen burritos or macaroni and cheese. But salad, served on nice dishes. And this is generally followed by a vegetable, a grain, and a chicken. After we have some pareve fudge cookies, we sing a blessing after the meal and do a partial clean up.

So far you might be reading this and thinking – “this guy is having the most normal, typical shabbat on the planet. That family is so traditional that they might as well be living in 19th century Minsk!”

But once the dishes are in the sink, and the kids are in bed, the tension in my shabbes returns.

There is a principle in halacha (the Jewish legal process) that when you are in an emergency situation and you have to do something on shabbes that is prohibited that you do it differently. For example, if you have to make a phone call, you use your pinky finger. So I wonder: How do you watch a movie on Shabbat?

I should note that I don’t always watch a movie on shabbat. There is a traditional practice of shabbat romance that my wife and I have on occasion observed with religious fervor. But sometimes we just want to watch a movie. So how do we do this and still maintain a sense of the sanctity of shabbat?

First off, you have got to get the movie before shabbat. Nothing could ruin a shabbat quicker than going into a video store and facing the possibilities.

What kind of movie is also important. I generally go by director to determine if a movie is “shabbesdik”. Zucker and Farlley brothers no, Coen brothers yes. Kirusawa yes, Woo, no. Early Waters no, late Waters yes. Allen yes. Speilberg? E.T. is a good shabbes movie Saving Private Ryan, a no-no. Schindler’s List? God forbid. All Hitchcock films, even though they involve murder, can be watched on shabbes. No movie with Mel Gibson should be watched on shabbes (or anytime for that matter – except Mad Max). Here is my point --There needs to be a new volume of Talmud written to cover the details of watching movies on shabbes. And there may be variances in practice. Perhaps only Jews in Philadelphia should be permitted to watch Rocky on shabbes.

When you watch a movie, you must fast-forward the previews, especially the adverts for the soundtrack, which I personally find to violate some fundamental principle of artistic integrity. You must also take great care not to watch any actual TV programming which may bombard you with an advert or tragic evening news.

Reb Zalman Schacter Shalomi, a great teacher that I have been fortunate to learn from, once told me a story of the first time he listened to a record on Shabbes. I can’t remember what it was—I think Bach -- but I remember him speaking of how he played it. He set the record on before shabbes, listened to it for the first half hour of shabbes and then he left the record player on, allowing the needle to hit the big grooves in the middle of the disc all shabbes long.

If I could pre-program the VCR and TV in such a way, I think I would do it. But I never know when I’ll be sitting down and I don’t want to structure my day around anything time-bound.

If we have friends over for dinner, then afterwards I love to sit in the living room and listen to some shabbesdik albums. These include works from the Jazz greats like Davis and Coltrane, or spiritually inclined musicians like Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. The ultimate shabbes song is Coltrane’s “Naima” on Giant Steps or Bill Lee’s marvelous title track to “Mo’Better Blues.” My Beastie Boys albums, as brilliant and funny as they are, cannot be played on shabbes.

Saturday morning, we wake up a little later than usual, eat a breakfast of leftover challah, and get ready to go to synagogue. Since I am not a full-time synagogue rabbi (I go to Princeton every other week) I have the luxury of being a regular Jew on Saturday morning. We bought our home conscious that walking to shul was a priority, and we have a lovely one block walk to the local Reconstructionst synagogue.

Like most young families, we spend most of our time at shul roaming along the halls talking to other parents about parent things. We also take our kids to a “tot shabbat” service which is sort of a Raffi concert marinated in chicken soup. Then my wife and I take turns slinking into the main sanctuary, capturing a moment of study or song. We stay until the bagel lunch begins and are often the last folks to leave.

We then walk home and engage in the most vital part of shabbat – the nap.

The nap is followed by a walk into town in which we admire the displays in the little shops but do not enter them. Or we’ll go to the playground and run around, spend time in a neighbor’s backyard or stroll in the community garden. On spring and summer days this time may be spent tending our own backyard garden.

For someone like myself, who has grown up with a traditional understanding of shabbat, this is a great irony. Of the thirty-nine categories of prohibitions, the very first one prohibits planting. So I violate this precept, with full knowledge that the shabbat violator is liable for stoning with the very rocks I am tossing to the side of the garden to plant strawberries.

To be honest, every time I go back to the garden and work on some project or other, I feel guilty. Shabbat, for the last three thousand years, has been about letting the land rest while we rested. As I uproot and pick I always feel the irony of my actions.

But I understand my behavior to be reflective of a powerful technological age in which the work in this world has been turned upside down in the same way that the agricultural revolution supplanted hunter- gatherers. So what once was our work, intensive agriculture, described as man’s curse as he was thrown from Eden, ‘by the sweat of you brow…’ is now a great joy. (Women, I sense, got the worse of the curses with the labor pain). Tilling the soil, digging in the dirt and growing things in my backyard now epitomizes shabbat. This is such a form of rest, a removal from the world of work, a return to the root, quite literally that I must say “Is this not shabbes, to have my hands covered in mud as I plant tomatoes?”

I understand that for some people, gardening, or its indoor counterparts of cooking and baking are indeed serious activities that involve commercial consumption, articulate planning, and even professional consultation. If you fall into that category, then such activities are not shabbesdik.

But for the amateur, of which I am one, an afternoon of gardening, as my kids run around in the backyard, or help out, is a fine way to spend those hours before sunset.

Shabbes then ends with a light meal –shaleshudes—at home or as part of a chavurah of ten other families in our town who like us, wonder what movies to watch on shabbes. We eat, and then when there three stars in the sky we make havdallah, and sing goodbye to shabbes together.

I’ve always loved havdallah – turning off the lights, lighting a funky candle, smelling spices, drinking wine to keep shabbat going inside your soul – most often I end the day rested, refreshed, re-souled, and returned to my root.

At the core of my shabbes observance is a deeper shabbes. One in which I really do drift through the world, resting, enjoying, reading, refraining from electricity and activity, simply singing praises, meditating and walking slowly. But as a family we navigate a course somewhere between the secular days of the week and that ideal shabbes.

Sara Duker, a young woman who was killed in a horrific terrorist attack in Israel, was once my study partner in Jerusalem. She spoke to me about her ultimate shabbes. In the summer, she and some friends had gone camping, and had prepared everything beforehand that they needed to eat and drink. They used no flashlights, no matches, no stereos – they did not change the world a bit, and all they read were prayers and words of Torah. It, for her, was a reconnection to creation and Creator. I often imagine that shabbes as I walk through my suburban home.

Though I have been a rather inconsistent dance partner with the Sabbath bride, I remember her beauty. Shabbat is a poppy studded meadow in a Frankenstein-world – a day of slow motion that floats in on a sunset and I am a fool not to close my eyes, take a deep breath and whisper its praises. More than we have kept Shabbat, they say, shabbat has kept us. I believe this to be true and am eternally grateful.