Windows and Doors

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Not only is this a month known to crossword puzzle fans, it is also the month which precedes Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year’s. 

Traditionally, the beginning of Elul marks the start of people’s spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which follows 10 days later.  I suppose that this writing marks the beginning of my own preparation.  I start with the ancient rabbinic notion that the four Hebrew letter which make up the word Elul, are actually an acronym for the words I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, found in Song of Songs 6:3.

From the very outset, this approach invites us to see renewal and repentance as functions of love.  Jewish guilt is perhaps more famous, and how that came to be, why Jews are often reticent to speak of love as a spiritual or theological category, and the misguided notion popular among many Jews that love is “a Christian thing”, are all important questions to be explored at some other time.  For now though, let’s simply go with the altogether beautiful and entirely traditional notion that it all begins with love. 

On this, the first day of Elul, as we prepare for the year ahead, we assert that as the year turns, we can return to who we most want to be, that we can renew our sense of self and purpose, that relationships, both with people and with God, can be rekindled and that atonement is always possible, because of love.  If we can live fully aware of the love that is available to us and give love in return, we will find the strength we need to accomplish the rest.

As pretty as that all sounds – and it is pretty, it also requires effort and support.  The support may come from friends, it may come through prayer and meditation, and it may come through the wisdom of wise teachers.  I recently opened a new book which contains such wisdom and it’s one worth checking out for yourself. 

Truthfully, it’s a new edition of a rather old book, and like the best of all such projects, it manages to provide the grounding and security of something ancient, with the freshness and beauty of something brand new.  It is the newly published Koren Rosh HaShana Mahzor (prayerbook) with introduction, translation and commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth i.e. Chief Orthodox Rabbi of British Jewry.

Whether this becomes one’s Mahzor of choice for the holiday or not, the wise comments and poetic translations in this volume offer a powerful tool for reconnecting to the love and intimacy referred to in Song of Songs 6:3 – the love and intimacy which are always there for us, if we open ourselves to them.

From the opening words of his introduction, Rabbi Sacks offers a simultaneously bold and humble approach to the holidays, one which celebrates human dignity and power, while also embracing the vulnerability which we all feel, at least from time to time.  He honors both the need to belong to those who love us – for them to yearn for us, love us and support us, and the importance of our loving them – yearning for them, loving them and supporting them. 

For Rabbi Sacks, the notion that we are our beloveds’ and our beloveds are ours, is not simply a point of entry into the holiday season, but a worldview which suffuses meaning into the entire process of repentance, renewal and rebirth.  It is both a goal which we can attain and a promise upon which we can rely.  What a wonderful way to begin getting ready for a blessed new year.

The classic image of an Orthodox rabbi is of a man with a long beard and black clothes.  To be sure, that image is common enough, but certainly not the only one.  Speaking personally, while I do have a beard, it’s not so long, and I don’t wear a black suit, or at least not very often.  Bottom line, there are many kinds of rabbis, even many kinds of Orthodox rabbis, and we dress in many ways.

Normally, I would not be writing about this kind of thing unless someone asked a specific question, but a new post on, one which features picture of now famous Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) rabbis has provoked a discussion of whether or not the stereotypical rabbinic “look” is a very new invention (last 50 years) or something far more established in Jewish custom.

While the site in question would like people to believe that it is the former, and that rabbis only dress this way now because it has become fashionable among the Haredim to reject the larger culture of which they are inescapably a part.  It’s actually not so simple.

In truth, rejectionism is one of the defining features of Haredi culture, but in this instance, the supposedly new look in rabbinic fashion was well-established a century and more ago.

All of the pictures on the FM site, which shows young men dressed in the style of the day, are of students of the Mir, and Hevron yeshivas.  Yes, Rav Moshe Soloveitchick was pictured also (from student days), but were that not his last name, he would not have had the freedom to be in the Brisk yeshiva (founded by his family) and look that way.  In the case of the other two yeshivahs, the fact that those pictured were students, not rabbis, when the pictures were taken, is key.

In each institution, it was common for students, before they were married, to grow out the the front of hair, go w/o beards and where modern clothing.  After marriage, and certainly for those who became rabbis, they dressed in what is called rebbeshche style i.e. long beard, balck clothes, etc.

It actually has logic: different careers have different uniforms e.g. doctors in white coats, lumberjacks in red, and rabbis in black.  Obviously, I don’t think it’s necessary, but neither do I think the pictures demonstrate what Failed Messiah thinks they do.  In fact, the tradition still holds, for the most part, in those same institutions, as it does in other American Haredi yeshivot such as Lakewood.  Just a bit of history for those who may be interested.

A version of this post appears on the Fox News Opinion page.  You can read it here, but I also suggest checking out the comments there.  They make for fascinating reading.

Through three terms as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg has consistently fought for the greatest possible inclusion of the greatest number of New Yorkers in virtually every area of city life. That is what makes his decision to ban religious leaders from participating in this year’s ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11 particularly disturbing.

Whether a victim of bad advice or following a poor personal intuition, the mayor is the man in charge and he must bear the blame for this decision.

All public ceremonies are about making choices – who should be invited and who should be left out.

Now I suppose a case, albeit a weak one, could be made for not including clergy in the ceremony — clergy can be difficult to deal with, and the tiring game of “if you include one, you must include all” makes having any religious leaders present difficult. But the fact that it may be difficult does mean that taking the easy way out is acceptable.

Mayor Bloomberg has rightly defended the inclusion of the so-called Ground Zero Cross in the 9/11 Memorial and also defended those who want to build a mosque and Muslim community center nearby.

So why now, at a critical moment when faith is so central for so many New Yorkers is the city officially unable to find a way to honor that reality and recall the important role faith has played in the lives of so many people both in New York City and around the world — both in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and in the days and years since?

Why not announce how a narrative of faith – faith which brought consolation and hope to so many —  will be included by at least one of the speakers at the ceremony. That person or those people don’t even have to be official religious leaders, they simply need to be people of faith. Their titles don’t matter but their faith does.

What matters, too, is that along with the somber speeches and patriotic preaching — which will surely comprise most of the ceremony — is that there ought to be space to acknowledge the role of religious faith and practice in healing the hearts and strengthening the resolve of victims and their families, not to mention millions who, however physically far away they were ten years ago, felt the force of those planes as they struck the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan.

On 9/11, we were attacked by people who could not have cared less about whom they were murdering – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, you name it. Ten years later, we need to find a way to be as inclusive in honoring their memory as their murderers were in taking their lives.

I hope that Mayor Bloomberg will reconsider his decision, will return to his senses, and follow his tradition of making room for more people and the traditions which bring purpose and meaning to their lives. There are many ways in which this might be accomplished and time is running out.

When Rick Perry and the millions of others who resist the concept of evolution, they not only resist science in potentially dangerous ways, they disown a fundamental truth about the faith they follow. That truth? That religions evolve, and acknowledging that they do so does not weaken the claim that they are the true and eternal will of God, as many believers claim about their chosen tradition. In fact, the adaptability of each of the world’s great traditions has proven to be a central feature of their durability.

Had early Christians, for example, not allowed for the evolution of their initial expectations regarding Jesus and his presumed imminent return, then no church would have been established and there would be no Christians today, merely the descendants of those whose redemptive hopes had been crushed almost two thousand years ago. An evolved i.e. adapted for survivability, understanding of God’s plan allowed a tradition to flourish without experiencing loss of integrity or connection to its origins. If that isn’t evolution, what is?

Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are here today because of similar adaptive evolutionary capacity. In their cases, the ability to access and continually refresh rich legal traditions has been central to each tradition’s ability to survive significant changes in the circumstances of the faithful in each tradition. In neither case however, did the adaptive process disrupt the faithful’s connection to God and their understanding of the eternality of God’s word. In fact, especially for Jews, it was those who refused to participate in the process that vanished.

God’s word, whatever that may include given the tradition one follows, is rendered eternal and eternally present through evolutionary processes which are, in many ways, similar to those which many fundamentalists reject when it comes to explaining how the world came to be and how it continues to move forward. It’s a shame, that in the name of faith, they cannot see that they are denying one of the engines of their own tradition’s success. It is an even greater shame that they have so little faith in God and in the infinite meaning of God’s word, that they constrain their understanding of it to such a narrow range of possible meaning.

Of course, none of this matters when it comes to what should be taught in America’s science classrooms. The answer to that is clear, and the answer is science. I have no problem with exposing kids to creationism or intelligent design, as long as it is in a history class or one which describes contemporary political debates, but to teach either in a science class is dangerously misleading.

Science does not simply seek data which confirms that which it already believes, as both creationism and intelligent design do. Science is based on a process of testing and inquiry, one which celebrates determining when old views are false. The truths of science are mutable and their value is based not on their eternality, but upon their testability and utility. Not until Gov. Perry and his supporters take that approach to their understanding of how the world came to be, can we even entertain the possibility of teaching what they want in science classes. And even then, certainly not as the equal alternative to evolution which they deem appropriate.

While evolution is a theory, that is not a term of denigration or diminution as creationists and intelligent design followers would have us believe. It is simply a term which marries precisely the kind of intellectual humility absent among fundamentalists, with the fact that after much exploration and testing, it is the best possible way to account for the physical process of how the world we live in came to exist.

Evolution is a theory in the sense that it cannot be physically proven, not in the sense that it is simply the chosen orienting principle of some people’s lives. While the latter could also be called a theory, assuming the two are equal would be like allowing a Pastor holding a Doctor of Divinity degree to perform neurosurgery simply because he too is called “Doctor”!

As a person of faith I believe that we need both kinds of Doctors, but not to perform the same tasks. In failing to make that distinction, we run the risk of endangering both the minds and the spirits of our nation’s schoolchildren, and any leader who cannot make that distinction is not fit to lead this nation.