Friday, October 29, 2010

We Should All Start with the Basics ...

Coming across an article called, "Study Shows Jews Donate More to the Poor," made me stop and think about how we prioritize our giving.  (See  The study indicates that Jews donate proportionately more to assist others with their basic needs (food, shelter, etc.) than other religious groups ... and it made me wonder why.  The article quoted the CEO of UJA-NY as saying: 

“From day one in our schools, synagogues and organizations, we assert that our deepest values reflect how we care about one another. In the midst of the Yom Kippur fast, the prophet Isaiah says the fast is about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. This linkage of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about each other is foundational,” he said.

I think he is right.  It sounds like folks are really listening.   : )

Saturday, October 9, 2010

I Got Quoted in "Jewish Women International Magazine" ... : )

Yes, I was quoted in a sidebar to an article on the new prevalence of women blowing the shofar at High Holy Days sevices ... here is the link:

Scroll down to find it ... and then tell me if you laugh ... and if you've seen this happen. : )

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Whaddya' Know? Let's Start at the Beginning ... It's a Very Good Place to Start ...

Sermon delivered Friday, October 1, 2010:

Shabbat Shalom.

I love surveys.
I love taking them.
I love analyzing them.
I love figuring out how the questions could have been better written.
I love tearing them apart to see how they could have been more thorough ... more representative ... more objective ... more inclusive. I even took a class in college on educational testing and surveys from a psychological perspective to learn about it … yep, I love surveys.  : )

But sometimes a group tells you so much about how they’ve done their questioning that it’s hard to complain … it’s hard to find a reason to be too critical … it’s hard to really do anything but accept their findings … and this happens each time I look at a survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center.

This past Tuesday, at the "God in America National Symposium on Religious Literacy," the Pew Forum released the results of a nationwide survey on … religious literacy … and we Jews did pretty darn well.  : )

We did the second best of any group studied in the survey ... behind the atheists and agnostics (who were lumped together because of their small numbers).

According to the survey, we stand out on our knowledge of other world religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism (although we’re not so good on some basic tenets of Christianity).

And we do really well on religion in public life, slightly better than the atheists and agnostics. Oh, and we did really well on the general knowledge questions.

But, on the general religious knowledge questions, we can do better.

So, I’m going to ask you a couple of the questions … but I’m not going to give you the answers right now … just keep them inside your head because at our fabulous Sisterhood Shabbat Dinner following services, 15 of the 32 religious questions asked in the survey will be on your dinner table … so you can answer and discuss them over dinner with your table-mates.  Yes, you can have some fun tonight seeing how you would have fared on this test during dinner.  : )

But here is a preview …

Only 47% of Jewish respondents answered a multiple-choice question correctly about which of four given Bible figures is most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering … again, don’t answer out loud … I know, the suspense of finding out if you are right might kill you, but don’t answer … [Job].

And, even though we did score the best on this one, and WAY better than almost all of the other groups, only 42% of Jewish respondents got it right when asked whether, according to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, whether a public school teacher is permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature … [yes, permitted].

But here’s the one we are looking at tonight. Only 57% of Jewish respondents knew who Maimonides was … now for the non-Jews answering, I’ll give them a pass on this one … but almost half of the Jewish respondents not knowing who Maimonides was?   Oyyyy.

Wednesday night we celebrated Simchat Torah, where we finished reading the last portion of the book of Deuteronomy and began again at the beginning of Genesis. Rabbi Ben Bag Bag, who (other than me) probably has the funniest name for a rabbi (although scholars say that his name was probably a nickname), taught that you should turn it and turn it … for everything is in it.  He taught that we should look into it, grow old and grey over it, and never move away from it, since each time we begin reading the Torah again we learn something new.

And so, this Shabbat, we start from the beginning again. We start with Parashat B’reisheet, the first portion in the book of Genesis … right from the very beginning.

And in honor of the 43% of Jews who did not get the question correct about Maimonides, tonight, we learn a little about B’reisheet from Maimonides.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known by the acronym, the Rambam, as well as the name of Maimonides, died about 800 years ago and yet his teachings make him timeless.

One of my favorite teachings by Maimonides about Parashat B’reisheet comes from his Guide to the Perplexed [1:2].

As you know, in the first Torah portion, God creates the world and everything in it, including human beings … and, at first, we live in a fabulous place called Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden … until … that "incident" with the snake and a little piece of fruit some translate as an apple.  Adam and Eve choose to eat from the one special tree in the middle of the garden, even though God says not to … tsk, tsk, tsk.

Commenting on Adam and Eve’s newly found nakedness when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Maimonides taught that it is not said, “and the eyes of them both were opened and they saw,” because what they saw previously was exactly what was seen afterwards. There had been no blindness before, but instead they found things wrong which previously they had not.

Their eyes were open to what had been there previously, but they experienced the world through new lenses … now you have to decide for yourself whether it is better for people to feel as if we should all be covered up instead of naked … but what happens to them is that their vision is focused on different things and they see their world differently.

Learning can do this for us as well.

Hopefully, we are not blind as we go through the world, but we can learn more and sharpen our focus. We can learn to see the world through different lenses and experience the world through other people’s eyes as well … but it all comes from opening ourselves up to new experiences.

I might say that Adam and Eve weren’t living in the “real world” when they were in the Garden of Eden … everything was given to them, there was no value in work, there was no value in exploring, there was no need to try to improve their lot in life … it was all given to them on a metaphorical silver platter.

And, while certainly it would be nice to not have to struggle for our basic cares, most of us can agree that it is the journey to understanding and internal spiritual growth that helps us find our ways to bettering ourselves and our lives.

And so to find beauty in our journey to see the world WE live in through as focused a lens as we can, we try new things, we experience new ways of doing things, and we learn.

So, here we are again at the beginning … at Parashat B’reisheet … I’ll never forget the first time I realized I had come to an entire year of Torah study and had read the entire Torah … it was definitely a Shehechiyanu moment.

Tomorrow morning, we start with Genesis again … and we turn it and turn it to see how it can bring new meaning to our lives. Torah study tomorrow morning at 9:15am. 

But maybe it’s not just Torah study … maybe you want to learn more about your own Jewish heritage and fine-tune the Jewish lens through which you experience your life … and for those folks, we begin our basic Judaism class again this Tuesday, called Living a Jewish Life (it’s a great refresher, too).

Yes, just after Simchat Torah, it is a time of new beginnings … as evidenced by the Pew Center Study, we Jews do pretty well knowing things about our religion and others, but we can do better. Come learn with us.

Shabbat shalom.