Archive for June, 2014


It is easy to get tripped up on the meanings of words. I have always loved this story as an illustration. Once an elementary school teacher asked the class to write a sentence about a public servant. The kids did a great job, but one response gave her pause. One little boy wrote, “The fireman came down the ladder pregnant.” The teacher questioned the young student if he knew the meaning of the word “pregnant.” “Sure,” he replied, “it means ‘carrying a child.’”

From the student’s perspective the meaning is absolutely clear. The teacher might know he misapplied the word, yet was the child wrong or just really clever in his usage? Is there anything wrong with expanding the definition of the word to include the student’s interpretation? I think we can ask all of the same questions when discussing a word that is “pregnant” with multiple interpretations – the word “religious.”

What does it mean to be religious? That is at the core of this week’s parashah, in which Korach and his followers question Moses’ somewhat exclusive relationship with God. They want to converse with God in the same manner as Moses. This leads to a showdown in which Korach and his followers, are swallowed by the earth, in a demonstration that seems to prove that God is backing the religious system administered by Moses (and Aaron). Yes, commentary criticizes Korach’s methods for questioning, his confrontational manner. Yes it criticizes his true motives – did he really want to engage in holiness or was this a rebellion born of ego needs? Whatever the answer, the solution, within our contemporary context, seems out of line with the problem.

Yet the question still stands today. Who is it that truly hears God’s voice? Which is just another way to ask what does it mean to be “religious?” It seems everyone has a different answer – and everyone’s answer is tinged with the bias of their religious background. Christians, Jews and Muslims all seem to have different answers. Indeed, within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam there are a variety of answers. Each group has a range from rigid fundamentalism to expansively liberal interpretations of sacred text and approaches to God.

For some, being religious is following a very strict set of regulations, meant to demonstrate holiness. These can include the mitzvoth of the Torah (for Jews), celibacy, seclusion, and frequent fasting, and/or strict rules regarding the relationships between men and women as well as sexual matters. These rules are meant to limit the amount of focus on extraneous matters so the individual can focus on God. The problem with this approach (at least for those of us not in these groups) is that these regulations seem to apply unequally, creating oppressive circumstances for those not accepted into the group. They create a hierarchy, which often creates inequality for women, gays, or those who do not share that approach to being religious. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “holy,” kadosh, means “separate” or “set apart.” There is a built in elitism to this theology. Does God really want women to be subservient? Does using a special dish towel to dry dishes holding meat or dairy bring one closer to God?

Others define religious by a strict form of faith. One must believe a certain doctrine, that is, think correct ideas, about God. The result is that those with the correct belief will gain entrance into a very exclusive country club when they die – called heaven. For people of this perspective, often what you do matters little. You must believe – and that belief can go against the observations of science, history, and plain old common sense. Defining “religious” by mandated faith or deeds creates a hierarchy that is exclusionary. Is being religious inherently a form of elitism? Does religiosity have to create theological “haves” and “have nots?”

All of this leads to a question. Is there really a set of actions or a set of beliefs that sets one apart as truly religious? My only answer is born of personal experience.

When I was a teenager and part of our synagogue’s youth group we undertook a special project – to read to a blind man. We knew him as Mr. Albright. 3 or 4 afternoons a week, one or two of us would go to his house and read to him. In the beginning it was books or articles that he selected. But over the years, as he got to know us, he catered his reading to our interests. Mr. Albright was a really interesting fellow and we all speculated about his background. He seemed to have a lot of inside information about World War II and some of us were convinced he had been a spy or in some intelligence agency. He was an expansive thinker who pushed us to question and to think. I am not sure who gained more out of this relationship – Mr. Albright through our reading to him, or us through the subtle way he taught us.

In any case, the day I got true insight into the word “religious” was the day I was at his place alone and without a car. I asked him if I could use the phone to call my mom to pick me up (this was long before cell phones). He responded that he would be glad to drive me home! “But Mr. Albright,” I said, “how can you drive? Aren’t you blind?” “I am only legally blind,” he responded. “I can still drive.” So being driven home in a car by a legally blind man, I suddenly understood what “religious” meant.

I am still not truly sure what it means to be religious. But I am sure of this – one does not define the self as religious. It is others who determine, in the end, if you are religious. There is some combination of faith, actions, and attitude that orient you towards God. I do not think one has to be a tzaddik (perfectly righteous person) to be religious, but it is a label given by those who know you, not self -proclaimed. I do not believe everyone is religious in the same way. I do not believe that any one group has cornered the market on what “religious” is. I only know that when my time in this world has ended, I hope I will merit the label of religious. If not, then just call me “pregnant.”

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I have no problems with the idea of turning 60. What seemed like such a large number when I was 30 was not scary at all. Just the opposite; I enjoy being at an age where I actually understand a few things – and I also know what I don’t know. I am in awe of the things I have witnessed in my lifetime, both historical and personal. It is actually fun to be able to look back and remember where I was for certain events, or my reactions to landmark movies, shows, music. It is fun to think of life in terms of the cultural contexts I have witnessed and now outlived. I have children, grandchildren, friends, and I do meaningful work in a wonderful community. When I left high school, I had the sense that the very best things in life were in front of me, not behind me. I was so right. I still feel the same way. Some of the best things are in front of me.

Nor was I upset that the actual day of my birthday would not be one of celebrating. I was fine with working that day and leading Shabbat services that night. I had been able to celebrate in NYC earlier in the week with my wife, one daughter and 3 grandchildren. I saw two great shows and spent time with friends. Even more, next weekend a lot of family and friends will be gathered at our home as we celebrate the Hebrew naming of my newest grand daughter. So the fact that my actual birthday was just another work day was no problem. I could not be prepared for what the day actually brought.

How can I describe it? I did nothing unusual, yet it was a day filled with joy and blessing – all because of technologies that did not exist when I was born or for most of my life. I woke up to texts on my phone and a bunch of Facebook messages wishing me a “happy birthday.” Many of them were just the quick 2 word greeting, but many, far more than I would have thought, were much more. I was the recipient of lovely messages from people who I never thought would know it was my birthday (I often don’t see the birthday reminders that Facebook provides). Friends from all over sent their love in special messages. Colleagues took time to wish me a special “Shabbat shalom” along with a “happy birthday.” I spoke to my two oldest friends – a set of twins I met when I was 9 – as they share my same birthday. This being a supposed “big one” we tracked each other down to exchange news and greetings. I finally caught up with them by cell phone as they were in a restaurant having a late dinner. I had calls, messages and texts from friends covering all the stages of my life – from high school, the years of raising our family, my business years and my career change to the rabbinate. These greetings were like a quick summary of the many connections I have made in my life.

So what I anticipated would be just another day – my celebrations were scheduled for other times – turned out to be a day filled with amazing blessing. I loved going on Facebook every few hours to see the lineup of messages. I loved the phone call from a congregant who, for a long time, was not very connected to the congregation, but called to tell me how much he appreciates the friendship we have been forming over the past year. I loved that every time my cell phone buzzed it was exciting and fun. So an ordinary day became special because people reached out through the various media and connected to me.

Of course there is a Torah message in all of this, because Torah works that way. This past Shabbat’s Torah portion was Naso, which includes the priestly benediction used so often by clergy of many faiths to offer blessing. As I prepared for Friday night’s d’var Torah, I had a little bit of a revelation. This blessing, like so many of the blessings in the Tanach, are not offeredby God. Rather, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron this will be the way the priesthood is to bless the people of Israel. And that is the real nature of blessings, they are the gifts that people convey to other people. We often say that God has blessed us, but really, it is the actions and words of the people in our lives who have blessed us. They, we, are God’s agents in this world. For blessings establish a kind of covenant between us. They bind us in a link forged for common goodness, common enjoyment. On my 60th birthday, I finally understood the power of those blessings.

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