How to Chop Walnuts

Haroset? Charoset? Charoses? Haroses? Whatever you call it, I love it so much that I wrote a song about it. Anyways, enough blogging, click play and enjoy "Chopped Up Walnuts"


Did God Kill Egyptians?

My latest piece about the Passover story is up on the Huffington Post (click here to check it out!) and it is yet another example of how many people read that site. 106 comments within the first 24 hours...and I imagine that there are more to come. I love reading the comments for both the crazies and for my own learning. Anyways - enjoy!


I penned this piece ten years ago, back when I was on the faculty of CLAL. Reading it again, I am struck by the line: 

"We are living in a time of war, shifting alliances, new dangers, increasing uncertainty and growing poverty." 

Even more true today than a decade ago, methinks. Anyways - Andre Neher's words are still a powerful call: 

Passover - The Unfinished Manuscript 

By Daniel S. Brenner

In the last sixty years, the words of the Passover Haggadah have marked the flow of history.  At a makeshift seder in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944 the leader recited, "This is the bread of our affliction!"  At a seder on the beaches of Tel Aviv in 1948, new immigrants sang, "Blessed be the Guardian who kept his promise to Israel!"  At a seder in a Black church in Washington, D.C. in 1969, young civil rights activists called out, "In every generation, every Jew must regard himself as though he, personally, had been brought out of Egypt." At the seder of Ethiopian Jews in a resettlement camp in 1992 families recited, "God brought us out from there, so that we are led to the land promised our ancestors!" And at seders last year, in the hours after the suicide bomber struck down 29 in Netanya, we said,  "In every generation they have stood against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be, has delivered us from their hand."  
Each year brings a new context to the seder, and the events on the front pages and on the front-lines cause ancient words to find new meanings. Yet the overall story does not change. No turn of events causes us to waver from our ultimate dream -- that all who are oppressed know freedom, that all who serve under Pharaohs know true justice, and that all who are exiled or abandoned can find a place to call home.
Andre Neher, the prolific Jewish scholar who was born in Alsace at the beginning of World War I, lived through cataclysmic changes. After surviving the destruction of much of European Jewry and then helping to rebuild it, he wrote the following words on the experience of Passover:  
No Jew can pass the Haggadah untouched, for its style is not narrative, but interrogative.      Its story is not told like a legend, but like a problem. One initial question is asked, and all the others follow from it: "What is the difference between this night and all other nights?" It is for the Jew to answer if he can, and if cannot, to feel that the question contains a challenge. Like an unfinished play, the night of the Exodus continues through the centuries, seeking actors to relive it perpetually, and to grasp its essential meaning.
(Moses and the Vocation of The Jewish People, 1959)

To take Neher's insight further, the Haggadah not only acts as a partially written script, but as a script whose lines take on new meaning every year. In that light, each year we must ask: What words will ring true this Passover?  What new connections will resonate? 
This year, it is uncertain what line will leap from the text of the Haggadah and grasp our attention. We are living in a time of war, shifting alliances, new dangers, increasing uncertainty and growing poverty. But we retain the hope that we will one day be able to truly say:  Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need celebrate Passover with us. 
On this night of questions, as you join your friends or family around the seder table, you might begin by asking each person to recall one news event from the past few months. As a group, pick one of these events and ask: How is the Exodus story being played out in the headlines?  How can telling the story of the Exodus deepen our understanding of these events? How are we reminded that we "were once strangers in a strange land?” 
As you read through the Haggadah, keep in mind Andre Neher's teaching that "the Exodus continues through the centuries, seeking actors to relive it perpetually, and to grasp its essential meaning." The more connections we draw, the closer we get to the essential meaning of Passover. May you be blessed with a festival of hope. 


Free Passover Play

If you're looking for an easy way to add some good drama to your Passover Seder, then you are in the right place. I've got twenty people coming to the first seder and probably as many to the second. Rather than read through the Haggadah's maggid section, we'll have fun with this short skit that tells the story. I offer it free to all those who would like to spice up their seders. Enjoy - and Zissen Pesach!


Free Passover Play 

What are rabbis for?

Here is an excerpt from a recent speech that I gave "installing" a rabbi: 

When I was young, my favorite book that my parents read to me was Leo Leonni’s Frederick.

Lionni was born in Amsterdam, the son of an Italian Jew, and he came to Philadelphia in 1939. He wrote Frederick in 1967. Here is the story: there is a group of field mice and they are all gathering grains and other foodstuffs for the coming winter months. All except for one – Frederick. What is Frederick doing? He is sitting watching the sunset, he is chasing butterflies, he’s watching the wheat blow in the wind. What are you doing? The other field mice say. “I am gathering colors” he says. Some of the mice mock him. But then, as they huddle together in darkness, for months on end, the field mice get depressed. Frederick begins to tell stories of the colors. He paints a picture for them in such a way that their winter depression is lifted and they all come to see the importance of his sacred task.

What, as we enter 2013, is the role of a communal spiritual leader? What is a rabbi for?

I want to suggest that there are two forces that are shaping our world as we enter into 2013.

The first is what I’ll call the global digital revolution. Future generations will look back on Steve Jobs as we look back on Thomas Edison, and Galielo Galeli. The instant interconnection of the globe through shared information is, indeed, a monumental shift in human culture. Within seconds, we can see what is going on all over the globe. A few weeks ago, I simultaneously watched a live feed from Gaza City and from Sderot from the comfort of my home in Montclair. At the same time, I was Gchatting with my Israeli cousins, reading Facebook rants from my friends on the left and the right, and shopping for Hannukah gifts.   

In some ways, the inter-connectivity is amazing. We can now access libraries and news and order flaxseed, shoe polish, hair gel, and garden gnomes.

But the inter-connectivity also has a downside, evidenced in the network of thieves, human traffickers, and nefarious predators who are harnessing the digital world for destructive purposes. The world has become a more dangerous place.

But what I want to focus attention not on the benefits or drawbacks of the digital era, but the way in which the digital era has produced a spiritual crisis. In our day, we want everything immediately, we can’t focus on one task, we are frustrated by anything that is not lightning fast, and we have an information overload.

Many students in our schools have little idea where to begin in navigating a flood of information and in dealing with the peer pressure that exists in digital environments. Thinking critically is not valued in our educational testing system and our children need strong mentors and teachers and parents who can help them to be discerning.  

We know more than we have ever known about the human body, about the bio-chemical make-up of our brains, about our digestive system, respiratory system, and immune system. And yet, when we or someone we love is faced with illness, we are lost in a sea of information. A flood of possibilities surround us and information contradicts other information and there are no simple answers to the ongoing mysteries of the human body.

The spiritual crisis of the digital era leads us to want fast answers to questions that may not be answerable.

The second force that is surging today is also global. It is a global resurgence of religious tribalism – a worldview that offers fast answers.  Religious leaders, who often use the tools of the digital era, paint modernity and science as a weapon of the good. They call for a return to patriarchy and an end to all judicial systems that exist outside of the religious authorities. We see this resurgence particularly in nations whose people have seen years of government corruption and have lose their faith in pluralist, secular systems of governance.

This rise in religious extremism presents a spiritual crisis for us as well. All those who do not pledge allegiance to the leaders of these sects are labeled as illegitimate. In Muslim, Chrisitan, and Jewish circles the level of hatred between these resurgent traditionalists and all other adherents has grown. Many young Jewish people grow up today thinking that unless you are in the most anti-modern yeshivah, then you are not really practicing Judaism.

These two forces are very real and our world needs leaders who can help us to navigate them.

What is needed to navigate a global digital world?

A rabbi who understand how the digital revolution is changing the way that people are learning and socializing, but who champions the wisdom of our ancient technologies – reading, conversation, ritual, poetry and silence. 

What is needed in a world of narrow religious tribalism?

A rabbi who has great love and respect for tradition, but who is willing to balance that respect with a respect for modernity and the new ways in which we are coming to understand what it means to be human and to be in community. A rabbi who is not afraid to think critically about tradition and not afraid to be a public spokesperson who defends the Jewish people.