Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pura Vida!

Saturday night (1/24) I officiated Carolyn and Hector's wedding at Maison de Macarty in Bywater, New Orleans, Louisiana. Here are the remarks I shared with them and their guests:
Friends, our shared traditions embrace lifelong learning, and learning from everyone. So, whenever I officiate a wedding, I ask myself, this couple being unique individuals, what can I learn from them, what are they, consciously or maybe even unconsciously, teaching me, and indeed us?

I am personally fascinated with origin stories. Here is the origin story of today's wedding in Carolyn's own words: "During one of my visits to Costa Rica, I stumbled upon a suffering homeless animal. The community had already come together and invested financially and emotionally in the dog’s care... I felt compelled to assist. Because of this I entered Hector’s work to rent a car to get her to a veterinary facility. Although it took him three weeks to finally ask for a date, we have been together since."

This reminded me of a fascinating rabbinic tale. The Bible does not really explain why Moses was chosen by God to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Now, actually, the Bible does give us enough reasons why he shouldn't. He does not want the job; he does not think the Children of Israel will listen to him; not only is he not a great speaker, he's a poor speaker; he does not think he will be a good leader. So, the Rabbis fill in the back story, the origin story of Moses' leadership.

They tell us that one day Moses was tending the flock of his father in law, Jethro, and a small kid ran away. Moses chased after the kid a fair distance. When he caught up with the animal, he found it drinking from a small stream. Moses said, "Now I understand why you were running away. You were thirsty! You must be very tired now." So, Moses waited for the kid to finish drinking, gently picked it up, and carried it back to the flock. Then God said, if Moses has such a kind heart that this is how he treats animals, certainly he will treat humans kindly too. He will lead my flock, Israel. What matters to God are not superficial attributes; what matters to God is a kind heart.

Now, fortunately, you and I never have to choose a leader to liberate 2 million people from slavery. However, if we are fortunate enough, we choose a spouse. Choosing a spouse is somewhat similar to choosing a leader. In both situations, we have to predict the future. We don't know what we as a country will need, when we elect a president. Likewise, we don't know what we will need or be like a few years into a marriage. So, like God in the rabbinic tale, we look for a sign, an attribute that can serve as a quasi-crystal ball - kindness, a good heart. That is what Carolyn and Hector saw in each other. That is why the origin story of this couple is so significant. They both displayed and admired, in each other, that same kindness that God saw in Moses.

Now, there are actually three more instances in the Moses story that reminded me of this couple. Moses is told to strike the Nile in the Blood and Frog Plagues and the Earth in the Lice Plague. However, he does not do so himself. The Rabbis say that this was because Moses did not want to show ingratitude to the Nile that hid him as a baby and the Earth that hid the evil task master he had killed as a young man. Think about how revolutionary this idea is. Moses showing gratitude to animals is one thing, but to inanimate objects?! That is truly incredible.

And yet, today, to our peril, we understand what happens when we disrespect our waterways and our Earth. We perceive exactly what happens when we do not live in harmony with nature, both animate and inanimate. In this sense, this couple is emblematic. Seldom have I heard two people talk about their love for nature, sustainability and the environment as kindly and passionately, as these two. Just look around you and you can see that in this very ceremony.

With that in mind, can any of us have any doubt that these two will live a life that truly and most definitely embodies "Pura Vida?"

Monday, January 5, 2015

Brit Shalom – a Covenant of Peace

Yesterday, I officiated my first Brit Shalom for Tzvi[1], son of Melinda and Chris in Allen, Texas.  Brit Shalom is a new innovation. As Dr. Mark Reiss explains on his website, “Brit Shalom is a naming ceremony for Jewish families opting out of circumcision.” Dr. Reiss is passionate about helping such families, and so he has assembled a list of 213 celebrants in the USA, who are willing to officiate such ceremonies, 158 of which are listed on his website.

I am a little distressed that I am the only one listed for Texas and Oklahoma, who will officiate for any family! After all, as Dr. Reiss explains, “Not all the celebrants listed are opposed to Brit Milah. However, they are all committed to providing service to families unwilling to circumcise their sons, by officiating at Brit Shalom ceremonies.” I, personally, am not opposed to circumcision, nor am I a supporter of this ancient practice. I find each side’s arguments quite legitimate. As all three of my boys were born while we were still Orthodox, I have the luxury of not having to decide, as a non-Orthodox Jew, in practice, what I would do. I just ask myself, if I were opposed to circumcision, would I not want a rabbi to welcome the opportunity to celebrate my child’s birth with me? Therefore, I sincerely hope other rabbis will join me, eventually.   

The term Brit Shalom is an interesting one. The Book of Ezekiel, written from the point of view of the 6th Century B.C.E. in Babylon, references the historical covenantal relationship between the Yahweh and the Judahites, which other prophets and authors had spoken about at length. As monolatrists[2], the destruction of Judah and the exile of the Judahites to Babylon, implied to many that the covenant had been broken. Ezekiel counters this, and reassures the Judahites that the covenant will be renewed in the future, as a covenant of peace, literally Brit Shalom.

Here are the remarks I shared Sunday night with Melinda, Chris and their extended family, which all gathered at their home in Allen, Texas:

One of the most fascinating things about the Jewish tradition is that a Jewish scholar, be he the greatest scholar of his generation, is referred to as a wise student. That is because Judaism so values the idea of life long learning. So, whatever like-cycle event I officiate, I try to see it as a teachable moment. 

Actually, it is this very point that stands out about Melinda and Chris. Most people just go with the flow. Most people's answer to why they do or don't do something is I don't know, or whatever, or because other people do. The liberal Jewish tradition does not view this type of approach favorably. It embraces the idea of learning that traditional Judaism does. It calls upon the individual, through this learning process, to seek out those traditions that enhance one's life, and practice those. Equally as important, it calls upon the individual, through the very same learning process, to figure out which traditions do not enhance one's life and discard those. Finally, it calls upon the individual, through this learning process to find traditions that with modification, can enhance one's life, and embrace those in their new form. This is exactly what Melinda and Chris have done in seeking out the rituals we practice today.

Now, note that I refer to the individual on purpose. Liberal Judaism calls upon every individual to work through this process. It recognizes that different people will come to different conclusions, and sees that as a good thing. So what is right for Melinda and Chris may not be right for the next couple. How wonderful this diversity is!

Finally, Liberal Judaism calls upon us to engage in dialogue, to argue our cases, and stand by our convictions, allowing the facts to guide us towards the conclusions that are right for us. It also calls upon us to use only the truth, as our guiding light. This means that one needs to listen to the other person's position, carefully evaluate it, be willing to accept that it could be right, and if it is, discard one's own position. This approach is the very approach that Melinda and Chris took in arriving at the conclusion that the type of celebration we observe here today is the right one for them.

So, Melinda and Chris, young Tzvi, is ahead if the pack already, since you will raise him in the very environment that brought about his first life cycle celebration. May you continue to inculcate him with this tremendously healthy approach.

[1] This is the Hebrew name mom and dad gave him Sunday night. In any type of baby naming ceremony, I always reference the English name too. It is omitted here to protect the young man’s privacy.
[2] This is the concept of believing in the existence of many gods, but swearing allegiance to only one. This is quite different from monotheism, where one believes in the existence of only one god. Most scholars today agree that the Yahweh Alone party, the small group of priests in the 7th Century B.C.E., who wrote the core parts of the Torah and Prophets, were monolatrists, not monotheists, and the straightforward reading of the Hebrew Bible really always pointed in that direction.